'The Houseless Poor'

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 24 March 2007

(Temple Bar, January 1861)

This last night of November seems determined to show us that, whatever its successor may have in store, it will find it a hard task to produce more inclement miserable weather. The rain has been coming down all day, and now, at seven o'clock in the evening, it is pouring one continuous, drenching, never-ceasing torrent. It is a good night to "see life" – not in the old Corinthian Tom and Jerry, lamp-breaking, Charley-boxing, Finish-frequenting sense of the word, but in a wider scope, and with a higher aim; – it is a good night to see those myriads who look on upon the streets as their home; who cling to doorways, trying to invest them with a sense of comfort; who are said, with a ghastly facetiousness, to know where the softest kerbstone is to be found, and which is the snuggest arch on the Bridge of Sighs.
'Tom and Jerry' were associated with scenery-destroying high-jinks long before the cat and the mouse turned up. Jerry and Corinthian Tom were the main characters in Pierce Egan's serialised novel Life in London (1821).
Come, then, with me, brother of mine; leave the warm dining-room, where the children are standing round the dessert, mindful of "goodies" to be transplanted from the teeming plates to their waterful mouths, and are gladdening the heart of Paterfamilias with their apt rehearsal of lessons conned during the day; – quit the snug study, where the new publications lying on the desk diffuse a pleasant odour, where the paper-knife lies so invitingly to your hand, the footstool to your feet, the easy-chair to your back, and where the shaded lamplight gleams off the lettered bindings of stout old friends, your consolers in many times of trouble, your never-varying always-present sustainers, when human acquaintances have "passed by on the other side;" – scorn for a time the poetical advice as to stirring the fire and wheeling the sofa round; – hie not to the crowded theatre, leaving others to be bored with elbow-points through both their sides, to outscold the ranting actor on the stage; – eschew the friendly game of pool; shun the club smoking-room, its scandal and its punch; – and, donning your water-proof and gutta-percha soles, taking your stoutest umbrella in your hand, come with me into the streets, and see how the stony-hearted step-mother treats those confided to her care.

Drury Lane looks much as usual; it must be a stiff rain or a bright sunshine indeed that would alter the aspect of that thoroughfare. Throughout the wide range of London streets there is none like this. Far away in distant Whitechapel, in the purlieus of the Mint, in vagabond alleys and blackguard courts debouching on the New Cut, – want, filth, misery, and degradation are all to be found; but in these places there are some signs of animation and bustle: boys and men hustle each other on the pavement, and push on their thieves' errand as though they had something to accomplish; women beat their children, scold their husbands, and wrangle with each other with energy and spirit. But in Drury Lane there reigns a dead sullen silence, – a flat, empty, vapid langour, – an absence of anything like business, which seems to arise not so much from abject poverty as from cowed blackguardism and lawlessness kept in check. As you see the men huddling together at the entrance to the courts, and the women crooning drearily together over their short pipes; as you mark the blackened eyes and bruised faces, the shifting restless glance, the broad bull neck, and the "aggerawator" curl, – you think involuntarily of the neighbouring police-station, and you feel that here your search for the outcast of London will be in vain. [...]
Drury Lane was a fashionable street in the seventeenth century, when Thomas Killigrew built the first in the line of Drury Lane theatres in 1652. (The fourth, and current, building was built in 1812.) It had already achieved a reputation for drunkenness and poverty by the eighteenth century, though, and nineteenth-century descriptions dwell at length on descriptions like these (see, for example, this of three years earlier). The writer here moves on quickly from Drury Lane after concluding that the true destitute aren't to be found here, since '[i]t is not until the last ray of hope is gone, until he is half famished with hunger, half dead with cold, half crazed with want [...] that he knocks at the door of the Refuge'. Moving on, then:
[...] Passing through Holborn, where damp umbrella-bearing clerks are hieing homeward, weary and dispirited with the day's work, where the gas, reflected on the shining pavement, gives a strange, weird, unreal aspect to the streets, where the deafening roar of the vehicles and the never-ceasing surge of population distract the scene, and give one some faint notion of a countryman's bewilderment on his first visit to London; – crossing the hill in the midst of a charivari, caused by rival omnibus touters and charioteers, doubtful as to the powers of their wretched steeds in making the ascent, past the end of Field Lane, where a forlorn fringe of wretchedness, dirt, and squalor is gathered in uninterested contemplation of the busy scene before it, – we strike across the corner of Victoria Street, and ploughing our way over the muddy road, knock primitively with our clenched hand at the door of the Night Refuge for the Homeless. The door is opened immediately, and, on inquiry for the superintendent, we are referred up-stairs. Ascending, we find ourselves in a very large square room, with a vaulted roof supported by iron girders, like a rail-way station; the whitewashed walls are hung with printed Scripture texts, and pictures of birds and beasts, with the names printed below, evidently illustrations to lessons on natural history. The sides of the room are furnished with tables, arranged separately, on the plan of the boxes in coffee-houses; and in the centre little squares are made with forms and benches. Round the tables (one side of the room being devoted to men, the other to women) are those who we came to see, the Destitute Poor of London.
From the directions, this seems to be the Field-Lane Refuge, which Thomas Archer described in 1870. (It had relocated to larger premises by then, and Archer gives some impressive statistics: "Strangers received, 8,524; lodgings supplied, 22,407; loaves of bread, 101,747; provided with situations and work, 628; restored to friends, 47; sent from the streets to the industrial schools, 10; sent to other refuges, 30; garments given, 450; admitted to infirmary, 9.")
Here is the agricultural tramp, the thick red country loam yet hanging on his stained gaiters and well-worn boots, seated next to the thin, attenuated, threadbare London clerk, who has seen better days, but who has now, with scarecrow limbs and haggard face, come to ask for a covering and a crust for the love of Heaven. Here is the stout country girl who, beguiled by newspaper advertisement, and on the chance of bettering herself, has left the farm-house far away, and come up to seek employment in London; but finding the place filled, and being without home or resources, has been directed by the friendly policeman to this abode, where the fail sister – the battered harried outcast of the London streets, the standing gibe of the ribald and the ruffian, the flower plucked in blooming innocence and flung away as soon as faded – has found a refuge. Here are boys, of the smallest size indeed, but with, oh, such old men's faces! – wizen, stunted, shrewd-looking little beings, – the Arabs of the streets, the poor Jacks and crossing-sweepers, the head-over-heels tumblers, the orange-sellers, the foam and froth and selvage of the road – huddling together for warmth, blinking in the unwonted gaslight, and glaring – half timidly, half ferociously – at all passing about them. Here are the mothers of the boys and girls (wh are invited on certain evenings, and for whose improvement special classes are held), some not yet past middle age, some decrepit and worn out, but all showing the traces of that hard battle of life in which they have been engaged in grizzled hair and deep-lined faces, and a certain desponding spiritless aspect. [...]
After supper follows Bible reading and religious instruction, the description of which I'm cutting here for length reasons (although the note about children 'worn out with their day's fruitless toiling, [who] were heavy and nodding with sleep' is worth quoting). Of the 'earnest attention' paid to the class, the narrator goes on:
[...] This further proves – what to us is now a certainty – that the Refuge fulfils its proper purpose – tht it is only made use of by those who see in it the last chance of escape from death by cold or starvation; and that those eminent philanthropists, who tell us of the jolly beggars and the cadgers' feasts, of the "aldermen in chains," the mendicants with greasy bank-notes hidden beneath their rags, will not find in Field Lane, any, however remotely, resembling those scamps whom they so graphically depict. To interpose a shield between direst poverty and dreadful death is the purpose of these homes; to minister to the pinched stomach and the aching back. This done, the mind comes in for its share of the cure; and as each recipient of bounty is granted a ticket, giving him permission to use the Refuge for seven days (which ticket is renewed on proper supervision), there is every hope that, within that time, the hardest man, prepared as he has been for the proper reception of instruction by sorrow and suffering, may be bettered and improved. That such is the effect on the boys is daily shown. On the evening when we were present a splendid specimen of a boy, ruddy-faced, dressed in the uniform of the Royal Navy, stout, healthy, and shining with cleanliness and good-humour, came in to take his share of the instruction. The Secretary called him up, and he told us that he had been educated at the Refuge, thence sent into the Shoeblack Brigade, thence into the navy, and that now, while on a few days' leave, he had come to spend the evening with his old tutors and companions. [...]
Shoeblack brigades provided employment (shoe-shining, naturally) for boys as part of licensed, uniformed organisations. Charles Dickens Jr. described the collective membership of London's shoeblack brigades as numbering around 400 in his 1879 Dictionary of London, adding that 'a guerilla horde of unlicensed shoeblacks, who are subject to no discipline or supervision, infest the streets and annoy the passenger.'
[...] Men from all parts of England, of all ages and professions, are to be found among them. We talked with a half-pay captain, of excellent manners and address, but rusted over with misery and broken down by hunger. Next to him lay a man of between sixty and seventy, who had been all his life a farm labourer; but overwork was scarce, "and but few masters cared for an old hand while so many young ones were about. Yes, he'd had a wife and a family; but they was all gone, and he was left alone. He didn't know what he was going to do, not he; they was all gone, and he was left alone." This old man, so thoroughly blank and reckless in his misery, so totally helpless, hopeless, and deserted, was perhaps the most touching of all the touching sights we saw that night. Just as we left, the door opened, and a bright-looking lad, genteelly dressed, but drenched to the skin with rain, came in, and asked for shelter. He was a tailor's son from Dunstable; had seen an advertisment offering employment for a clerk; had come up to London, found the place filled; had no money to take him back, and now was literally destitute, with no place to get a meal or lay his head. [...]
We end with lengthy praise for the Secretary and Superintendent of the refuge, and a brief description of the other charitable work they're involved in:
[...] Penny banks; Night-Schools for children; Industrial Classes, in which the boys are taught to mend their own clothes and shoes; home visits to the sick poor; Bible-classes; connection with the City Mission, – all have been established by these enterprising men, and all are working with distinguished success. Our business, however, is accomplished. It was to see but the Destitute Poor of London in the home provided for them by thoughtful charity. We have seen how admirable and how efficacious are its arrangements; and we may conclude by strongly recommending it to the benevolence of all who would have their charity usefully and practically applied.