by Thomas Holmes
(Secretary of the Howard Association)
I am hopeful that some of the experiences given in the following chapters may throw a little light upon some curious but very serious social problems. Corporate humanity always has had, and always will have, serious problems to consider.
The more civilised we become the more complex and serious will be our problems—unless sensible and merciful yet thorough methods are adopted for dealing with the evils. I think that my pages will show that the methods now in use for coping with some of our great evils do not lessen, but considerably increase the evils they seek to cure.
With great diffidence I venture to point out what I conceive to be reasons for failure, and also to offer some suggestions that, if adopted, will, I believe, greatly minimise, if not remove, certain evils.
I make no claim to prophetic wisdom; I know no royal road to social salvation, nor of any specific to cure all human sorrow and smart.
But I have had a lengthened and unique experience. I have closely observed, and I have deeply pondered. I have seen, therefore I ask that the experiences narrated, the statements made, and the views expressed in this book may receive earnest consideration, not only from those who have the temerity to read it, but serious consideration also from our Statesmen and local authorities, from our Churches and philanthropists, from our men of business and from men of the world.
For truly we are all deeply concerned in the various matters which are dealt with in "London's Underworld."
THOMAS HOLMES. 12, Bedford Road,
I MY FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES II LONDON'S UNDERWORLD III THE NOMADS. IV LODGING-HOUSES V FURNISHED APARTMENTS VI THE DISABLED VII WOMEN IN THE UNDERWORLD VIII MARRIAGE IN THE UNDERWORLD IX BRAINS IN THE UNDERWORLD X PLAY IN THE UNDERWORLD XI ON THE VERGE OF THE UNDERWORLD XII IN PRISONS OFT XIII UNEMPLOYED AND UNEMPLOYABLE XIV SUGGESTIONS.
CHAPTER I. MY FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES
The odds and ends of humanity, so plentiful in London's great city, have for many years largely constituted my circle of friends and acquaintances.
They are strange people, for each of them is, or was, possessed of some dominating vice, passion, whim or weakness which made him incapable of fulfilling the ordinary duties of respectable citizenship.
They had all descended from the Upper World, to live out strange lives, or die early deaths in the mysterious but all pervading world below the line.
Some of them I saw, as it were, for a moment only; suddenly out of the darkness they burst upon me; suddenly the darkness again received them out of my sight.
But our acquaintance was of sufficient duration to allow me to acquire some knowledge, and to gain some experience of lives more than strange, and of characters far removed from the ordinary.
But with others I spent many hours, months, or years as circumstances warranted, or as opportunities permitted. Some of them became my intimates; and though seven long years have passed since I gave up police-court duties, our friendship bears the test of time, for they remain my friends and acquaintances still.
But some have passed away, and others are passing; one by one my list of friends grows less, and were it not that I, even now, pick up a new friend or two, I should run the risk of being a lonely old man. Let me confess, however, that my friends have brought me many worries, have caused me much disappointment, have often made me very angry. Sometimes, I must own, they have caused me real sorrow and occasionally feelings of utter despair. But I have had my compensations, we have had our happy times, we have even known our merry moments.
Though pathos has permeated all our intercourse, humour and comedy have never been far away; though sometimes tragedy has been in waiting.
But over one and all of my friends hung a great mystery, a mystery that always puzzled and sometimes paralysed me, a mystery that always set me to thinking.
Now many of my friends were decent and good-hearted fellows; yet they were outcasts. Others were intelligent, clever and even industrious, quite capable of holding their own with respectable men, still they were helpless.
Others were fastidiously honest in some things, yet they were persistent rogues who could not see the wrong or folly of dishonesty; many of them were clear-headed in ninety-nine directions, but in the hundredth they were muddled if not mentally blind.
Others had known and appreciated the comforts of refined life, yet they were happy and content amidst the horror and dirt of a common lodging-house! Why was it that these fellows failed, and were content to fail in life?
What is that little undiscovered something that determines their lives and drives them from respectable society?
What compensations do they get for all the suffering and privations they undergo? I don't know! I wish that I did! but these things I have never been able to discover.
Many times I have put the questions to myself; many times I have put the questions to my friends, who appear to know about as much and just as little upon the matter as myself.
They do not realise that in reality they do differ from ordinary citizens; I realise the difference, but can find no reason for it.
No! it is not drink, although a few of them were dipsomaniacs, for generally they were sober men.
I will own my ignorance, and say that I do not know what that little something is that makes a man into a criminal instead of constituting him into a hero. This I do know: that but for the possession of a little something, many of my friends, now homeless save when they are in prison, would be performing life's duties in settled and comfortable homes, and would be quite as estimable citizens as ordinary people.
Probably they would prove better citizens than the majority of people, for while they possess some inherent weakness, they also possess in a great degree many estimable qualities which are of little use in their present life.
These friends of mine not only visit my office and invade my home, but they turn up at all sorts of inconvenient times and places.—There is my friend the dipsomaniac, the pocket Hercules, the man of brain and iron constitution.
Year after year he holds on to his own strange course, neither poverty nor prison, delirium tremens nor physical injuries serve to alter him. He occupies a front seat at a men's meeting on Sunday afternoon when the bills announce my name. But he comes half drunk and in a talkative mood, sometimes in a contradictory mood, but generally good tempered. He punctuates my speech with a loud and emphatic "Hear! hear!" and often informs the audience that "what Mr. Holmes says is quite true!" The attendants cannot keep him silent, he tells them that he is my friend; he makes some claim to being my patron.
Poor fellow! I speak to him kindly, but incontinently give him the slip, for I retire by a back way, leaving him to argue my disappearance in no friendly spirit with the attendants. Yet I have spent many happy hours with him when, as sometimes happened, he was "in his right mind."
I, would like to dwell on the wonders of this man's strange and fearsome life, but I hasten on to tell of a contrast, for my friends present many contrasts.
I was hurrying down crowded Bishopsgate at lunch time, lost in thought, when I felt my hand grasped and a well-known voice say, "Why! Mr. Holmes, don't you know me?"
Know him! I should think I do know him; I am proud to know him, for I venerate him. He is only a french polisher and by no means handsome, his face is furrowed and seamed by care and sorrow, his hands and clothing are stained with varnish. Truly he is not much to look at, but if any one wants an embodiment of pluck and devotion, of never-failing patience and magnificent love, in my friend you shall find it!
Born in the slums, he sold matches at seven years of age; at eight he was in an industrial school; his father was dead, his mother a drunkard; home he had none!
Leaving school at sixteen he became first a gardener's assistant, then a gentleman's servant; in this occupation he saved some money with which he apprenticed himself to french polishing. From apprentice to journeyman, from journeyman to business on his own account, were successive steps; he married, and that brought him among my many acquaintances.
He had a nice home, and two beautiful children, and then that great destroyer of home life, drink! had to be reckoned with. So he came to consult me. She was a beautiful and cultured woman and full of remorse.
The stained hands of the french polisher trembled as he signed a document by which he agreed to pay L1 per week for his wife's maintenance in an inebriate home for twelve months where she might have her babe with her. Bravely he did his part, and at the end of the year he brought her back to a new and better home, where the neighbours knew nothing of her past.
For twelve months there was joy in the home, and then a new life came into it; but with the babe came a relapse; the varnish-stained man was again at his wits' end. Once more she entered a home, for another year he worked and toiled to pay the charges, and again he provided a new home. And she came back to a house that he had bought for her in a new neighbourhood; they now lived close to me, and my house was open to them. The story of the following years cannot be told, for she almost ruined him. Night after night after putting the children to bed, he searched the streets and public-houses for her; sometimes I went with him. She pawned his clothes, the children's clothing, and even the boy's fiddle. He cleaned the house, he cooked the food, he cared for the children, he even washed and ironed their clothing on Saturday evening for the coming Sunday. He marked all the clothing, he warned all the pawnbrokers. At length he obtained a separation order, but tearing it up he again took her home with him. She went from bad to worse; even down to the deepest depths and thence to a rescue home. He fetched her out, and they disappeared from my neighbourhood.
So I lost them and often wondered what the end had been. To-day he was smiling; he had with him a youth of twenty, a scholarship boy, the violinist. He said, "I am just going to pay for his passage to Canada; he is going to be the pioneer, and perhaps we shall all join him, she will do better in a new country!" On further inquiry I found that she was trying hard, and doing better than when I lost them.
Thinking she needed greater interest in life, he had bought a small business for her, but "Mr. Holmes, she broke down!"
Alas! I knew what "breaking down" meant to the poor fellow, the heroic fellow I ought to have said. And so for her he will leave his kindred, home and friends; he will forsake the business that he has so slowly and laboriously built up, he will sacrifice anything in the hope that the air of Canada "will do her good." let us hope that it may, for her good is all he lives for, and her good is his religion.
Twenty years of heartbreaking misery have not killed his love or withered his hope. Surely love like his cannot fail of its reward. And maybe in the new world he will have the happiness that has been denied him in the old world, and in the evening of his life he may have the peaceful calm that has hitherto been denied him. For this he is seeking a place in the new world where the partner of his life and the desire of his eyes may not find it easy to yield to her besetting temptation, where the air and his steadfast love will "do her good."
But all my acquaintances are not heroes, for I am sorry to say that my old friend Downy has served his term of penal servitude, and is at liberty once more to beg or steal. He is not ashamed to beg, but I know that he prefers stealing, for he richly enjoys anything obtained "on the cross," and cares little for the fruits of honest labour.
Downy therefore never crosses my doorstep, and when I hold communication with him he stands on the doorstep where I bar his entrance.
Yet I like the vagabond, for he is a humorous rascal, and though I know that I ought to be severe with him, I fail dismally when I try to exhort him. "Now, look here, old man," he will say, "stop preaching; what are you going to do to help a fellow; do you think I live this life for fun" and his eyes twinkle! When I tell him that I am sure of it, he roars. Yes, I am certain of it, Downy is a thief for the fun of it; he is the worst and cleverest sneak I have the privilege of knowing; and yet there is such audacity about him and his actions that even his most reprehensible deeds do not disgust me.
He is of the spare and lean kind, but were he fatter he might well pose as a modern Jack Falstaff, for his one idea is summed up in Falstaff's words: "Where shall we take a purse to-night?" Downy, of course, obtained full remission of his sentence; he did all that was required of him in prison, and so reduced his five years' sentence by fifteen months. But I feel certain that he did nor spend three years and nine months in a convict establishment without robbing a good many, and the more difficult he found the task, the more he would enjoy it.
I expect his education is now complete, so I have to beware of Downy, for he would glory in the very thought of "besting" me, so I laugh and joke with the rascal, but keep him at arm's length. We discuss matters on the doorstep; if he looks ill I have pity on him, and subsidise him. Sometimes his merry look changes to a half-pathetic look, and he goes away to his "doss house," realising that after all his "besting" he might have done better.
Some of my friends have crossed the river, but as I think of them they come back and bid me tell their stories. Here is my old friend the famous chess-player, whose books are the poetry of chess, but whose life was more than a tragedy. I need not say where I met him; his face was bruised and swollen, his jawbone was fractured, he was in trouble, so we became friends. He was a strange fellow, and though he visited my house many times, he would neither eat nor drink with us. He wore no overcoat even in the most bitter weather, he carried no umbrella, neither would he walk under one, though the rains descended and the floods came!
He was a fatalist pure and simple, and took whatever came to him in a thoroughly fatalist spirit. "My dear Holmes," he would say, "why do you break your heart about me? Let me alone, let us be friends; you are what you are because you can't help it; you can't be anything else even if you tried. I am what I am for the same reason. You get your happiness, I get mine. Do me a good turn when you can, but don't reason with me; let us enjoy each other's company and take things as they are."
I took him on his own terms; I saw much of him, and when he was in difficulties I helped him out.
For a time I became his keeper, and when he had chess engagements to fulfil I used to deliver him carriage paid to his destination wherever it might be. He always and most punctiliously repaid any monetary obligation I had conferred upon him, for in that respect I found him the soul of honour, poor though he was! As I think of him I see him dancing and yelling in the street, surrounded by a crowd of admiring East Enders, I see him bruised and torn hurried off to the police station, I see him standing before the magistrate awaiting judgment. What compensation dipsomania gave him I know not, but that he did get some kind of wild joy I am quite sure. For I see him feverish from one debauch, but equally feverish with the expectation of another.
With his wife it was another story, and I can see her now full of anxiety and dread, with no relief and no hope, except, dreadful as it may seem, his death! For then, to use her own expression, "she would know the worst." Poor fellow! the last time I saw him he was nearing the end. In an underground room I sat by his bedside, and a poor bed it was!
As he lay propped up by pillows he was working away at his beloved chess, writing chess notes, and solving and explaining problems for very miserable payments.
I knew the poverty of that underground room; and was made acquainted with the intense disappointment of both husband and wife when letters were received that did not contain the much-desired postal orders. And so passed a genius; but a dipsomaniac! A man of brilliant parts and a fellow of infinite jest, who never did justice to his great powers, but who crowded a continuous succession of tragedies into a short life. I am glad to think that I did my best for him, even though I failed. He has gone! but he still has a place in my affections and occupies a niche in the hall of my memory.
I very much doubt whether I am able to forget any one of the pieces of broken humanity that have companied with me. I do not want to forget them, for truth to tell they have been more interesting to me than merely respectable people, and infinitely more interesting than some good people.
But I am afraid that my tastes are bad, and my ideals low, for I am always happier among the very poor or the outcasts than I am with the decent and well behaved.
A fellow named Reid has been calling on me repeatedly; an Australian by birth, he outraged the law so often that he got a succession of sentences, some of them being lengthy. He tried South Africa with a like result; South Africa soon had enough of him, and after two sentences he was deported to England, where he looked me up.
He carries with him in a nice little case a certified and attested copy of all his convictions, more than twenty in number. He produces this without the least shame, almost with pride, and with the utmost confidence that it would prove a ready passport to my affection.
I talk to him; he tells me of his life, of Australia and South Africa; he almost hypnotises me, for he knows so much. We get on well together till he produces the "attested copy," and then the spell is broken, and the humour of it is too much for me, so I laugh.
He declares that he wants work, honest work, and he considers that his "certificate" vouches for his bona fides. This is undoubtedly true, but nevertheless I expect that it will be chiefly responsible for his free passage back to Australia after he has sampled the quality of English prisons.
My friends and acquaintances meet me or rather I meet them, in undesirable places; I never visit a prison without coming across one or more of them, and they embarrass me greatly.
A few Sundays ago I was addressing a large congregation of men in a London prison. As I stood before them I was dismayed to see right in the front rank an old and persistent acquaintance whom I thoroughly and absolutely disliked, and he knew it, for on more than one occasion I had good reason for expressing a decided opinion about him. A smile of gleeful but somewhat mischievous satisfaction spread over his face; he folded his arms across his breast, he looked up at me and quite held me with his glittering eye.
I realised his presence, I felt that his eye was upon me, I saw that he followed every word. He quite unnerved me till I stumbled and tripped. Then he smiled in his evil way.
I could not get rid of his eyes, and sometimes I half appealed to him with a pitiful look to take them off me. But it was no use, he still gazed at me and through me. So thinking of him and looking at him I grew more and more confused.
The clock fingers would not move fast enough for me. I had elected to speak on sympathy, brotherhood and mutual help. And this fellow to whom I had refused help again and again knew my feelings, and made the most of his opportunity.
But my friend will come and see me when he is once more out of prison. He will want to discuss my address of that particular Sunday afternoon. He will quote my words, he will remind me about sympathy and mutual help, he will hope to leave me rejoicing in the possession of a few shillings.
But that will be the hour of my triumph; for then I will rejoice in the contemplation of his disappointment as my door closes upon him. But if I understand him aright his personal failure will not lead him to despair, for he will appear again and again and sometimes by deputy, and he will put others as cunning as himself on my track.
Some time ago I was tormented with a succession of visitors of this description; my door was hardly free of one when another appeared. They all told the same tale: "they had been advised to come to me, for I was kind to men who had been in prison."
They got no practical kindness from me, but rather some wholesome advice. I found afterwards from a lodging-house habitue that this man had been taking his revenge by distributing written copies of my name and address to all the lodging-house inmates, and advising them to call on me. And I have not the slightest doubt that the rascal watched them come to my door, enjoyed their disappointment, and gloried in my irritation.
Yes, I have made the acquaintance of many undesirable fellows, and our introduction to each other has sometimes been brought about in a very strange manner. Sometimes they have forced themselves upon me and insisted upon my seeing much of them, and "knowing all about them" they would tell me of their struggles and endeavours to "go straight" and would put their difficulties and hopes before me. Specious clever rascals many of them were, far too clever for me, as I sometimes found out to my cost. One young fellow who has served a well-earned and richly merited sentence of five years' penal servitude, quite overpowered me with his good intentions and professions of rectitude. "No more prison for me," he would say; he brought his wife and children to see me, feeling sure that they would form a passport to my sympathy and pocket.
He was not far wrong, for I substantially and regularly helped the wife. I had strong misgivings about the fellow, consequently what help I gave I took care went direct to his wife.
Sometimes he would call at my office, and with tears would thank me for the help given to his wife and children. I noticed a continual improvement in his clothing and appearance till he became quite a swell. I felt a bit uneasy, for I knew that he was not at work. I soon discovered, or rather the police discovered that he had stolen a lot of my office note-paper of which he had made free use, and when arrested on another charge several blank cheques which had been abstracted from my cheque book were found upon him. He had made himself so well known to and familiar with the caretaker of the chambers, that one night when he appeared with a bag of tools to put "Mr. Holmes' desk right," no questions were asked, and he coolly and quite deliberately, with the office door open, operated in his own sweet way. Fortunately, when trying the dodge in another set of chambers, he was arrested in the act, and my blank cheques among many others were found upon him.
Another term of penal servitude has stopped his career and put an end to, I will not say a friendship but an acquaintance, that I am not at any rate anxious to renew.
They come a long way to see me do some of my friends, and put themselves to some trouble in the matter, and not a little expense if they are to be believed. Why they do so I cannot imagine, for sometimes after a long and close questioning I fail to find any satisfactory reason for their doing so. I have listened to many strange stories, and have received not a few startling confessions! Some of my friends have gone comforted away when they had made a clean breast and circumstantially given me the details of some great crime or evil that they had committed. I never experienced any difficulty, or felt the least compunction in granting them plenary absolution; I never betrayed them to the police, for I knew that of the crime confessed they were as guiltless as myself. Of course there is a good deal of pathos about their actions, but I always felt a glow of pleasure when I could send poor deluded people away comforted; and I am sure that they really believed me when I told them that under no circumstances would I betray their confidence, or acquaint the police without first consulting them. I never had any difficulty in keeping my promise, though sometimes my friends would, after a long absence, remind me of it.
But occasionally one of my friends has compelled me to seek the advice of an astute detective, for very clever rogues, real and dangerous criminals, have been my companions and have boasted of my friendship, whilst pursuing a deplorably criminal course. But I never had the slightest compunction with regard to them when I knew beyond doubt what they were at. Friends and associates of criminals have more than once waited on me for the purpose of enlisting my sympathy and help for one of their colleagues who was about to be released from prison, and the vagabonds have actually informed detectives that "Mr. Holmes was going to take him in hand." What they really meant was, that they had taken Mr. Holmes in hand for the purpose of lulling the just suspicions of the police. One day not long ago a woman, expensively dressed and possessed of a whole mass of flaxen hair, burst into my office. She was very excited, spoke good English with an altogether exaggerated French accent, and her action was altogether grotesque and stereotyped. She informed me that she had that morning come from Paris to consult me. When I inquired what she knew about me and how she got my address, she said that a well-known journalist and a member of Parliament whom she had met in Paris had advised her to consult with me about the future of a man shortly to be discharged from prison. As during the whole of my life I had not met or corresponded with the brilliant gentleman she referred to, I felt doubtful, but kept silent. So on she went with her story, first, however, offering me a sum of money for the benefit of as consummate a villain as ever inhabited a prison cell.
I declined the money and refused to have anything to do with the matter till I had had further information. Briefly her story was as follows: The man in whom she and others were interested was serving a term of three years for burglary. He was an educated man, married, and father of two children. His wife loved him dearly, and his two children were "pretty, oh, so pretty!" They were afraid that his wife would receive him back again with open arms, and that other children might result. They were anxious that this should be prevented, for they felt, she was sorry to say, that he might again revert to crime, that other imprisonments might ensue, and that "the poor, poor little thing," meaning the wife, might be exposed to more and worse suffering than she had already undergone.
Would I receive a sum of money on his account and arrange for him to leave England? They felt that to be the wisest course, for "he is so clever, and can soon build up a home for her when he is away from his companions." Of his ability I had subsequently plenty of proof, and I have no reason to doubt her statement that he could soon "build up a home." He could very quickly—and a luxurious home, too!
The wife was not to be considered at all in the matter, but money would be sent to me from time to time to help the "poor little thing and her children!" I was interested, but I said to myself, "This is much too good," and the ready journey from Paris rather staggered me. I put a few simple questions, she pledged me to secrecy. I told her that I would ask the prison authorities to send him to me on his discharge.
"I so please, I now go back to Paris; I come again and I bring you money," she said, as she shook her furs and took herself and her flaxen hair to somewhere else than Paris, so I felt persuaded.
Two days before the prisoner's discharge she burst in again, huffy head, furs and gesticulation as before. "I come from Paris this morning, I bring you money." I was not present, but I had previously warned my assistant not to receive any money. The gay Parisian was informed that no money could be received, but she promptly put two sovereigns on the desk and disappeared—-but not to Paris!
He stood before me at last, a little fellow, smart looking, erect, self-satisfied and self-reliant. I told him of the two sovereigns and the fluffy hair, of the good intentions of his Parisian friend. I spoke hopefully of a new life in a new country and of the future of his wife and children; he never blanched. He was quite sure he knew no French lady with fluffy hair; he had no friends, no accomplices; he wanted work, honest work; he intended to make amends for the past; he "would build up a home" for his wife and children.
I saw much of him; we lunched together and we smoked together, and he talked a good deal. His wife fell ill owing to very hard work, and I befriended her. He accepted the two pounds and asked for more! He was a citizen of the world, and spoke more than one language. Our companionship continued for some months, and then my friend and myself had to sever our connection.
He was one of a gang of very clever thieves, who operated on a large scale, and who for cool audacity and originality were, I think, almost unequalled!
They engaged expensive suites of rooms or flats, furnished them most expensively on credit or the hire system, insured the goods against burglary, promptly burgled themselves, sold the goods, realised the insurance, and then vanished to repeat their proceedings elsewhere.
So clever were they at the business that costly but portable goods were freely submitted to their tender mercies. They invariably engaged rooms that possessed a "skylight." It was my friend's business to do the burgling, and this he did by carefully removing the glass from the skylight, being careful not to break it; needless to say, he removed the glass from the inside and carefully deposited it on the roof, the valuables making their exit through the room door and down the staircase in broad daylight.
My friend, who spoke Dutch fluently and accurately, has, I understood, sold to English merchants whose probity was beyond dispute the proceeds of some of his "firm's" operations. This game went on for a time, the Parisian lady with the false hair being one of the confederates. He disappeared, however, and I am glad to think that for some considerable time society will be safeguarded from the woman with the flaxen hair, and the operations of a clever scoundrel.
I am glad to say that the number of my friends and acquaintances who have seriously tried to "best" me form but a small proportion of the whole. Generally they have, I believe, been animated with good intentions, though the failure to carry them out has frequently been manifest and deplorable.
I am persuaded that weakness is more disastrous to the world than absolute wickedness, for nothing in the whole of my life's experience has taken more out of me, and given me so much heartbreaking disappointment as my continued efforts on behalf of really well-intentioned individuals, who could not stand alone owing to their lack of grit and moral backbone. For redemptive purposes I would rather, a hundred times rather, have to deal with a big sinner than with a human jellyfish, a flabby man who does no great wrong, but on the other hand does not the slightest good.
But, as I have already said, though all my friends and acquaintances were dwellers in a dark land, not all of them were "known to the police"; indeed, many of them ought to be classified as "known to the angels," for their real goodness has again and again rebuked and inspired me.
Oh the patience, fortitude and real heroism I have met with in my acquaintances among the poor. Strength in time of trial, virtue amidst obscenity, suffering long drawn out and perpetual self-denial are characteristics that abound in many of my poorest friends, and in some of the chapters that are to follow I shall tell more fully of them, but just now I am amongst neither sinners nor saints, but with my friends "in motley." I mean the men and women who have occupied so much of my time and endeavours, but whose position I knew was hopeless.
How they interested me, those demented friends of mine! they were a perpetual wonder to me, and I am glad to remember that I never passed hard judgment upon them, or gave them hard words. And I owe much to them, a hundred times more than the whole of them are indebted to me; for I found that I could not take an interest in any one of them, nor make any fruitless, any perhaps foolish effort to truly help them, without doing myself more good than I could possibly have done to them. Fifteen years I stood by, and stood up for demented Jane Cakebread, and we became inseparably connected. She abused me right royally, and her power of invective was superb. When she was not in prison she haunted my house and annoyed my neighbours. She patronised me most graciously when she accepted a change of clothing from me; she lived in comparative luxury when I provided lodgings for her; she slept out of doors when I did not.
She bestowed her affections on me and made me heir to her non-existent fortune; she proposed marriage to me, although she frequently met and admired my good wife. All this and more, year after year!
Poor old Jane! I owe much to her, and I am quite willing, nay, anxious, to say that in a great measure Jane Cakebread was the making of Thomas Holmes.
Years have passed since we laid Jane gently to rest, but she comes back to me and dominates me whenever I mentally call my old friends together. Her voice is the loudest, her speech the most voluble, and her manner the most assertive of all my motley friends. They are all gathering around me as I write. My friend who teaches music by colour is here, my friend with his secret invention that will dispense with steam and electricity is here too; "Little Ebbs" the would-be policeman is here too; the prima donna whose life was more than a tragedy, the architect with his wonderful but never accepted designs, the broken artist with his pictures, the educated but non-sober lady who could convert plaster models into marble statuary are all with me. The unspeakably degraded parson smoking cigarettes, his absence of shirt hidden by a rusty cassock, lolls in my easy-chair; my burglar friend who had "done" forty years and was still asking for more, they are all around me! And my dipsomaniac friends have come too! I hear them talking and arguing, when a strident voice calls out, "No arguing! no arguing! argument spoils everything!" and Jane stops the talk of others by occupying the platform herself and recites a chapter from the book of Job. I am living it all over again!
And now troop in my suffering friends. Here is the paralysed woman of thirty-five who has for twenty years lain in bed the whiles her sister has worked incessantly to maintain her! Here is my widow friend who after working fifteen hours daily for years was dragged from the Lea. As she sits and listens her hands are making matchboxes and throwing them over her shoulder, one, two, three, four! right, left! they go to the imaginary heaps upon the imaginary beds. While blighted children are crawling upon the floor looking up at me with big eyes. Here is my patient old friend who makes "white flowers" although she is eighty years of age, and still keeps at it, though, thank God, she gets the old-age pension.
Now come in the young men and maidens, the blighted blossoms of humanity who wither and die before the time of fruition, for that fell disease consumption has laid its deadly hand upon them.
Oh! the mystery of it all, the sorrow and madness of it all! I open my door and they file out. Some back to the unseen world, some back to the lower depths of this world! Surely they are a motley lot, are my friends and acquaintances; they are as varied as humanity itself. So they represent to me all the moods and tenses of humanity, all its personal, social and industrial problems. I have a pitiful heart; I try to keep a philosophic mind; I am cheery with them; I am doubtful, I am hopeful!
I never give help feeling sure that I have done wisely, I never refuse the worst and feel sure that I have done well. I live near the heart of humanity, I count its heart-beats, I hear its throbs.
I realise some of the difficulties that beset us, I see some of the heights and depths to which humanity can ascend or descend. I have learned that the greatest factors in life are kindly sympathy, brotherly love, a willingness to believe the best of the worst, and to have an infinite faith in the ultimate triumph of good!
CHAPTER II. LONDON'S UNDERWORLD
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 London's underworld. 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 London's underworld do without it? What would the sick and suffering be without it? In tiny rooms where darkness is made visible by penny-worths 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 London's underworld there are at least 50,000 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. 250. Time: 3.30 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 London's underworld 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 1911)
"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 144 children were being supported by their mothers only, 57 were living on their sisters, 68 upon the joint earnings of elder brothers and sisters, while another 130 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.'"
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 11 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'clock 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 3.30 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, absolutely 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 to-day 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.