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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER VIII HOUSING THE POOR
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And now, so far as this book is concerned, I have done with prisoners and criminals, so I turn right gladly to the other side of my life. For my life is dual, one half being given to sinners and the other to saints. I have spoken freely about the difficulties of prisoners and with prisoners; let me now tell of the struggles, difficulties, and virtues of the industrious poor. I will draw a veil over the ignorance, the drunkenness, the wastefulness, and the cupidity of the very poor. Other people may find these matters congenial, and may dilate upon them, but such a task is not for me. I know these things exist—I do not wonder at their existence—but other things exist also—things that warm my heart and stir my blood—and of them I want to tell. And I have some right to speak, for I know the very poor as few can know them. From personal touch and friendly communion my experience has been acquired, and I am proud to think that at least twelve hundred of London's poorest but most industrious women look upon me as their friend and adviser.

[Pg 148]

When I gave up police-court work, I thought to devote the remainder of my days absolutely to the London home-workers; but Providence willed it otherwise, so only one-half of a very busy life is at their service. Of what that half reveals I cannot be silent, though I would that some far abler pen than mine would essay the task of describing the difficulties and perils that environ the lives of the industrious poor. I want and mean to be a faithful witness, so I will tell of nothing that I have not seen, I will describe no person that does not exist, and no narrative shall sully my pages that is not true in fact and detail. Imagination is of no service to me. I am as zealous for mere facts as was Mr. Gradgrind himself, and my facts shall be real, self-sufficing facts, out-vying imagination, and conveying their own lesson. If I carry my readers with me, we shall go into strange places and see strange sights and hear piteous stories; but I shall ask my readers to be heedless of all that is unpleasant, not to be alarmed at forbidding neighbourhoods or disgusted with frowzy women, but to contemplate with me the difficulties and the virtues of the industrious poor, and then, if they will, to worship with me at the shrine of poor humanity.

Quite recently I was invited to take sixty of my poor industrious women to spend a day at Sevenoaks. Among the party was a widow aged sixty and her daughter of thirty-five. They were makers of women's costumes, and had worked till half-past four that very morning in order to have the day's outing. I had known them for years, and many times had I been in their poor home[Pg 149] watching them as, side by side, they sat at their machines. Happy were they in recent years when their united earnings amounted to twenty-one shillings for a week's work of eighty hours. "Tell me," I said to the widow, "how long have you lived in your present house?" "Forty years," said the widow. "Emmy was born in it, and my husband was buried from it. I have been reckoning up, and find that I have paid more than twelve hundred pounds in rent, besides the rates." "Impossible," I said, "out of your earnings!" She said: "We let off part of the house, and that pays the rates and a little over, but we always have to find ten shillings a week for rent." Ten shillings out of twenty-one shillings, when twenty-one was forthcoming, which was by no means the case every week. "We cannot do with less than three rooms—one to work in, one to sleep in, and the little kitchen. I cannot get anything cheaper in the neighbourhood."

Here we come at once upon one of the greatest difficulties of the industrious poor. If they wish to live in any way decently, one-half their earnings disappears in rent.

"We have nowhere to go." The difficulties the poor have in finding suitable—or, indeed, any—rooms that may serve as a shelter for themselves and their children, and be dignified by the name of "home," are almost past belief. All sorts of subterfuges are resorted to, and it is no uncommon thing for a woman, when applying for one or more rooms, to state the number of her children to be less than half what it is in reality. Sometimes, it must be confessed, the people who obtain rooms[Pg 150] by such means are not desirable tenants; but it is also true that even decent people have to resort to some kind of deception if they are to find shelter at all.

Day after day in London police-courts the difficulty is made manifest. Houses altogether unfit for human habitation have to be closed by order of the authorities; but, wretched and insanitary as those dwellings are, dangerous to the health and well-being of the community as they may be, they are full to overflowing of poor humanity seeking some cover. But they must "clear out." Their landlords say so, the sanitary authorities say so, and the magistrate confirms the landlord and the sanitary authorities. The one cry, the one plea of all the poor who are to be ejected is: "Where are we to go? We can't get another place." The kindly magistrate generally allows a few weeks' grace, and tells them to do their best meanwhile to procure other rooms. For some this is a possibility, but for others the period of grace will pass, and on an appointed day an officer of the court will be in Paradise Row or Angel Court, as the case may be, to see that the tenants are ejected without undue violence, and that their miserable belongings are deposited safely in the street.

On dark November days, with the rain coming steadily down, I have frequently seen the débris of such homes, the children keeping watch, and shivering as they watched. I have spoken to the children, asked them about their mother, and their reply has been: "Mother has gone with the baby to look for another place."

Heaven help that mother in her forlorn hope[Pg 151] and desperate search! I can imagine her clutching the babe tightly to her, holding in her closed hand the shilling that is to act as a deposit for binding a tenancy, her last rent-book in her bosom to show her bona fides, going from street to street, from house to house, climbing staircase after staircase, exploring and appealing time after time. She will stoutly declare that she has but two children, when she has six; she will declare that her husband is a good, sober man, and in regular work, neither of which will be true. Ultimately, she will promise to pay an impossible rent, and tremulously hand over the shilling to bind the contract; then she will return to the "things," and tell the children of their new home. This is no imaginary picture. It is so very true, so very common, that it does not strike our imagination. The cry of the very poor is ever sounding in our ears: "We have nowhere to live! We don't know where to go!"

This fear of being homeless, of not being allowed to live in such wretched places as they now inhabit, haunts the very poor through life, and pursues them to the grave. And this worry, anxiety, and trouble falls upon the woman, adding untold suffering to her onerous life; for it is the woman that has to meet the rent-collector, whose visits come round all too quickly; she has to mollify him when a few shillings remain unpaid. The wife has to procure other rooms when her husband has fallen out of work, and she receives the inevitable notice to quit when there appears to be a possibility of the family becoming still more numerous. If sickness, contagious or otherwise, comes upon[Pg 152] any of the children, and the shadow of death enters the home, upon the wife comes the heart-breaking task of seeking a new home and conveying her children and "things" to another place. This is no light task. The expense is a consideration, and the old home, bad as it was, had become in many ways dear to her. What more pitiful sight can be imagined than the removal? No pantechnicon is required—a hired barrow is sufficient; and when night has well advanced the goods are conveyed in semi-darkness from the old home to the new.

Think for a moment what a life she lives, to what shifts she is reduced, what privations she endures! Is it any wonder that the children born of her have poor bodies and strange minds?
"The children born of thee are fire and sword,
Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws,"

Tennyson makes King Arthur to say. In many respects these words are true of poor mothers in London. The houses in which they live, the conditions under which they exist, the ceaseless worries and nameless fears they endure, make it absolutely certain that many of the children born will be strange creatures.

And right up to the verge of eternity the fear of being homeless haunts the poor. Let one instance suffice. I was visiting a young married woman whose husband had been sent to prison for some months. She lived in one room, for which she paid, or should have paid, four shillings and sixpence weekly. The street was a very poor street, and the house a very small house. It stood, without[Pg 153] any forecourt, close up to the street pavement. While I was speaking to the young woman a message came that the landlady, who lived downstairs, wanted to speak to me; so down the narrow stairs I went. There being only one room below, I rapped at the door, and a very queer voice told me to "Come in." I went in, and found a very small room, occupied chiefly by a bed, a small table, and several broken chairs. On the bed lay an old woman. Her face was puckered with age, her forehead was deeply furrowed, her eyes were dim, and the hands lying on the quilt were more like claws than human hands. As I stood over her, she looked up and said: "Are you Mr. Holmes? I want my rent." Her voice was so strange and thin that I had some difficulty in understanding her, but I found that the tenant upstairs owed her five weeks' rent, and that, now her husband was in prison, the poor old woman was afraid of losing it. As the matter seemed to trouble her greatly, I told her that I would pay the arrears of her rent. "But I want it now," she went on. "The collector is coming to-morrow, and I shall be put out—I shall be put out." I stroked her thin hair, and told her that I would call early the next morning and give her the money. But the poor woman looked worried and doubtful. I called early the next morning, and found the old woman expecting me. "Have you brought my rent?" were the first words I heard on entering the room. I took up one of her thin hands and opened it, and put a sovereign in it. "That is a sovereign," I said. She held it up, and tried to look at it; but she was not[Pg 154] satisfied, for she said to her daughter, who was standing by: "Jane, is this a sovereign?" When Jane assured her that it was, the old hand closed convulsively upon it. "Hold out your other hand," I said. She held it open, and I counted five shillings into it. Then that hand closed, and the old head lay a bit closer to the pillow, and an expression of restful satisfaction passed over her withered face. A week later I called at the same house, but the old woman was not there, neither had she been "put out." She had paid the rent-collector when he called, and her rent-book was duly signed; but the Great Collector had not forgotten her, for He also had called and given her a receipt in full. Her worries were ended.

If we would but think—think of the effect that such anxieties must have upon the present and future generations—I believe that we should realize that first and foremost of all questions affecting the health and happiness of the nation stands the one great question of "housing the very poor"; for the chivalry of our men, the womanliness of our women, the sweetness of our daughters, and the brave hearts of our lads depend upon it.

But if the fear of being "put out" has its terrors, none the less has the continuous occupation of one room its attendant evils. It is so easy for humanity to get used to wretched homes and vile environments, so easy to get accustomed to dirt, thick air, and insanitary conditions, that one does not wonder that poor people who have lived for years under such conditions prefer those conditions to any other. And this holds true even with those who have known the bracing effect of[Pg 155] cold water on their bodies, and have felt the breath of God in their lungs. The return path to dirt is always alluring to the human body. Time and again I have gone into places where I hardly dared to breathe, and in which I could only with the greatest difficulty stay for a few minutes; and when I have sometimes ventured to open a window a look of astonishment crossed the faces of those I had called on, for even the thick atmosphere had become natural.

And other results follow—mental as well as physical. To become, through bad but frightfully dear housing, gradually used to dirt and bad air, till these are looked upon as natural, carries along with it, as part and parcel of itself, another deadening influence. Filth raises no feeling of disgust; high rents produce no sense of injustice, no feelings of resentment: for the poor become absolutely passive. Yes, and passive in more ways than one; for they, without question or demur, accept any payment that may be given them for such services as they can render. Inevitably, they become the prey of the sweater, and work for endless hours at three halfpence per hour; and if the payment for the work they do should, without their permission, be reduced, it only means that a couple of hours more must be added to the long day already worked.

It is this passivity of the poor that appals me. Their negative virtues astonish me, for I find in them no bitterness, no sense of wrong, no idea of rebellion, no burning resentment—not even the feeling that something is wrong, though they[Pg 156] know not what. Their only ambition is to live their little lives in their very little homes; to be ready weekly with their four shillings for their wretched room in a wretched house; to have plenty of poorly-paid work, though they sit up all night to do it; and to sit in poverty and hunger when sufficient work is not to hand, to suffer silently, to bear with passive heroism, and to die unburied by the parish.

Such is the life of many London home-workers, of whom some are my personal friends. But what becomes of this life? The death of a............
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