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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER IX THE HOOLIGANISM OF THE POOR
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Present-day excitements have killed the "hooligan" scare. Good nervous people now sleep comfortably in their beds, for the cry of "The hooligans! the hooligans!" is no longer heard in our land. Yet, truth to tell, the evil is greater now than when sensational writers boomed it. It grows, and will continue to grow, until the conditions that produce it are seriously tackled by the State. I must confine myself to the hooliganism of the poor. Of the hooliganism of undergraduates, medical students, stockbrockers, and politicians I say nothing. Of Tommy Atkins on furlough or of Jack ashore I wish to be equally silent. But of the class, born and bred in London slums, who do no regular work, but who seem to live on idleness and disorder, I desire to speak plainly—plainly, too, as to the conditions that are largely responsible for the disorderly conduct of the rising youth.

A large number of undoubtedly good people think it is easy to cure by punitive methods. I do not. "A policeman behind every lamp-post and the lash—the lash!" cried a notable[Pg 167] divine during a never-to-be-forgotten week when he edited an evening paper. Such was his recipe! For months the cat with nine tails was a favourite theme, and all sorts of people caught the infection, and there was a great cry and commotion raised and sustained by a sensational but altogether inaccurate press. Every assault committed by a labouring man, every bit of disorder in the streets, if caused by the poor and ignorant, was a signal for the cry "The hooligan again!" Rubbish! But the people believed it, and so to some extent our level-headed and kind-hearted magistrates caught the spirit of the thing, and proceeded to impose heavier sentences on boys charged with disorderly conduct in the streets. But this was not enough, for the Home Secretary (Mr. Ritchie) in the House of Commons, in reply to a question about youthful hooligans, said it was thought that the magistrates had been too lenient with them, and stated that the police had orders to charge those young gentlemen on indictment, so that they might not be dealt with summarily, but committed for trial. In other words, they were to take from the magistrates the power of so-called lenient punishment, and have them tried by judge and jury. Very good, but what good longer terms of imprisonment would do, the Home Secretary did not say; and as to the magistrates, they can be severe enough, though they do know when to be lenient, and in aggravated cases they already commit for trial.

Profoundly I wish that all Home Secretaries would exercise their minds on the causes that lead to youthful hooliganism, and do something to[Pg 168] remove them. It were better far than taking steps to secure more severe punishment. Such talk to me seems callous and cruel, for punitive methods will never eradicate the instincts that lead to disorderly conduct in the streets among the "young gentry" of the poor. I must confess to a feeling of discomfort when I see a boy of sixteen sent to a month's imprisonment for disorderly conduct in the streets. It is true that he has been a nuisance to his elders, and has bumped against them in running after his pals. Equally true that he uses language repulsive to ears polite; but to him it is ordinary language, to which he has been accustomed his life through. But I am afraid it is equally true that similar offences committed by others in a better position would be more leniently dealt with. Would anyone suggest that a public-school boy, or a soldier on furlough, or a young doctor, or an enthusiastic patriot, should be committed for trial on a like charge? I trow not. Allowances are made, and it is right they should be made. I claim these allowances for the poor and the children of the poor.

Moreover, if these "young gentry" are to be consigned in wholesale fashion to prison, will it lessen the evil? I think not. On the contrary, it will largely increase it. Some of them will have lost the moderate respectability that stood for them in place of character; many of them will lose their work, and will join the increasing army of loafers; but all of them will lose their fear of prison, that fear of the unknown that is the greatest deterrent from crime and disorder. Familiarize these "young gentry" with prison,[Pg 169] and it is all over with them. The sense of fear will depart, and to a dead certainty more serious disorder and grosser crime will follow. Undoubtedly many of them will find prison quarters preferable to their own homes, and though they may resent the loss of liberty, they will find some comfort in the fact that they do not have to share with four others an apology for a bed, fixed in an apology for a room, of which the door cannot be opened fully because the bedstead prevents it.

If our law-makers, our notable divines, and our good but nervous people had to live under such conditions, I venture to say they would rush into the streets for change of air; and if any steam were left in them, who can doubt but that they would let it off somehow? Under present conditions, the "young gentry" have the choice of two evils—either to stay in their insufferable homes or to kick up their heels in the streets. But this includes two other contingencies—either to become dull-eyed, weak-chested, slow-witted degenerates, or hooligans. Of the two, I prefer the latter. The streets are the playgrounds of the poor, and the State has need to be thankful, in spite of the drawback in disorder and crime, for the strength and manhood developed in them. It will be a sorry day for England when the children of the poor, after being dragooned to school, are dragooned from the streets into the overcrowded tenements called home. Multiply large towns, run the "blocks" for the poor up to the skies, increase the pains and penalties for youthful disorder, and omit to make provision for healthy, vigorous, competitive play: then we may write "Ichabod"[Pg 170] over England, for its glory and strength will be doomed. Wealth may accumulate, but men will decay. Robust play, even though it be rough, is an absolute condition of physical and moral health.

Consider briefly how the poor live. Thousands of families with three small rooms for each family, tens of thousands with two small rooms, a hundred thousand with one room. And such rooms! Better call them boxes. Dining-room and bedroom, kitchen and scullery, coal-house and drawing-room, workshop and wash-house, all in one. Here, one after another, the children are born; here, one after another, many of them die. I went into one of these "combines," and saw an infant but a few days old with its mother on a little bed; in another corner, in a box, lay the body of another child of less than two years, cold and still. I felt ill, but I also felt hot. I protest it is no wonder that our boys and girls seek the excitement of the streets, or that they find comfort in "dustbins." What can big lads of this description do in such surroundings? Curl up and die, or go out and kick somebody. The pity of it is that they always kick the wrong person, but that's no wonder. Tread our narrow streets, where two-storied houses stand flush with the pavements; explore our courts, alleys, and places; climb skyward in our much-belauded dwellings; or come even into our streets that look snugly respectable. You will find them teeming with juvenile life that has learned its first steps in the streets, got its first idea of play in the gutter, and picked up its knowledge of the vulgar tongue from those who have graduated in a gutter school. Is it any[Pg 171] wonder that young people developed under these conditions look upon the streets as their natural right, and become oblivious to the rights of others? They are but paying back what they have received. Neither is it to be wondered at that as they grow older they grow more disorderly and violent, but altogether less scrupulous. It is absurd to suppose that boys who have grown into young men under these conditions will, on reaching manhood, develop staid and orderly ways, and equally absurd to suppose that by sending them for "trial" they will be made orderly.

Let us have less talk of punishment and more of remedy; and the remedy lies, not with private individuals, but with the community. The community must bear the cost or pay the penalty. Oxford and Cambridge contend in healthy rivalry on the river, and the world is excited. Eton plays Harrow at cricket, and society is greatly moved. A few horses race at Epsom, and the people generally go wild. But when the Hackney boys contend with the boys of Bethnal Green, why, that's another tale. But they cannot go to Lord's or to Putney, so perforce they meet in the places natural to them—the streets. "But they use belts!" Well, they have no boxing-gloves, and it may comfort some folks to know that generally they use the belts upon each other. The major part of so-called youthful hooliganism is but the natural instinct of English boys finding for itself an outlet—a bad outlet it may be, but, mind you, the only outlet possible, though it is bound to grow into lawlessness if suitable provision is not made for its legitimate exercise.

[Pg 172]

At the close of one of my prison lectures, among the prisoners that asked for a private interview was an undersized youth of nineteen, a typical Cockney, sharp and cheeky as a London sparrow. He put out his hand and said, "How do you do, Mr. Holmes?" looking up at me. I shook hands with him, and said: "What are you doing here?" "Burglary, Mr. Holmes," he said. "Burglary?" I said—"burglary? I am sure God never intended you for a burglar." Looking up sharply, he said: "No, He would have made me bigger, wouldn't He? But I have had enough of prison," he said—"I've had enough. I'm going straight when I get out, and I shall be out in three weeks. It is very good of you to come and talk to us, and I am glad to know about all those men you have told us of; but I've come to see you because I want you to tell me how I am to spend my spare time when I am out. I am going back home to live. I've got a job to go to—not much wages, though. I shall live in Hoxton, and I want to go straight. If I get some books and read about those fellows you talked of, I can't read at home—there's no room. If I go to the library I feel a bit sleepy when I've been in a bit, and the caretaker comes along and he gives me a nudge, and he says: 'Waken up! This ain't a lodging-house.' We have no cricket or football. There's the streets for me in my spare time, and then I'm in mischief. Now, you tell me what to do, and I'll do it."

Municipal playgrounds are absolutely necessary if our young people are to be healthy and law-abiding. Of parks we have enough at present.[Pg 173] Our so-called recreation-grounds are a delusion and a snare, though to some they are doubtless a boon, with their asphalted walks, a few seats, and a drinking-fountain. They are very good for the very old and the very young; but if Tom, Dick, and Harry essayed a game of rounders, tip-cat, leap-frog, or skittles, why, then they would soon find themselves before the magistrate, and be the cause of many paragraphs on youthful hooliganism in the next day's papers. Now, private philanthropy and individual effort is not equal to the task—and, in spite of increasing effort and enlarged funds, never will be equal to the task—of finding suitable recreation for our growing youth. I know well the great good done by our public-school and other missions, with their boys' clubs, etc.; but they scarcely touch the evil, and they certainly have not the means of providing winter and summer outdoor competitive games. Every parish must have its public playground, under proper supervision, lit up with electric light in the evening, and open till 10 p.m. Here such inexpensive games as rounders, skittles, tip-cat, tug-of-war, might be organized, and Hackney might have a series of competitions with Bethnal Green, for the competitive element must be provided for. A series of contests of this sort would soon empty our streets of the lads who are now so troublesome. I venture to say that a tournament, even at "coddem" or "shove-ha'penny" alone, would attract hundreds of them, and certainly an organized competition of "pitch-and-toss" would attract thousands. Counters might be used instead of coins, and they would last for ever.[Pg 174] The fact is, that these youths are easily pleased, if we go the right way to wo............
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