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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER XI A PENNYWORTH OF COAL
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It was winter-time, and the cold damp fog had fallen like a heavy cloud on East London. The pavements were grimy and greasy; travelling, either on foot or by conveyance, was slow and dangerous. The voices of children were not heard in the streets, but ever and again the hoarse voice of some bewildered driver was heard asking his way, or expostulating with his horse. Occasionally a tell-tale cough came from some foot-passenger of whose proximity I had been unaware, but who, like myself, was slowly groping his way to a desired haven.

I found my objective at last, and I entered a queer room possessing two doors—one the ordinary street door; the other, of which the upper part was glass, opened into an outhouse at a right angle with the house door. This annexe had once been a greengrocer's shop, and fronted a side-street; now it was used as a coal and coke depot, and to it resorted the poor for their winter's supply of coal and coke.

The proprietor was ill, had been ailing for years, and now the shadows of eternity hovered around[Pg 199] him. It was afternoon, and he was resting. I sat talking with his wife, an elderly woman, who sat at a machine making a new pair of knickers out of an old garment for a neighbour who had many children, the while a girl waited to have a new frock made out of an old dress that had been purchased probably at a street causeway auction, when, "A penn'orth of coal, please, Mrs. Jenkins!" The voice came from the coal depot. Mrs. Jenkins got up from her machine. "John, can you come down and attend to the shop?" I heard a step on the bedroom floor above me, and presently John, weak and gasping, descended the stairs, passed through the little room and through the glass door, and served the pennyworth of coal; came back, and, delivering the penny to his wife, gasped his way upstairs again. "How much coal do you give for a penny?" I asked Mrs. Jenkins. "Six pounds." "Why, that is above one shilling and sixpence halfpenny per hundredweight—nearly thirty-two shillings per ton," I said. "Yes, sir, it is dear buying it by penn'orths, but I can't sell it any cheaper." "How much do you give for a ton?" I asked, for I had not then been in the coal depot, or I need not have asked. "Oh, sir, we never get a ton; I buy it by the hundredweight from the trolly-man, and give one and fourpence the hundredweight." "Do you get full weight from the trolly-man?" "Well, we don't get anything over; but the London County Council has looked after them so sharply that they dare not give us short weight now." "But there is some dirt and slack in every sack you buy." "Yes, but I burn that myself with a bit of coke." She[Pg 200] then continued: "I wish the poor people would always buy fourteen pounds." "Why?" "Well, it would be better for them, you see; we only charge them twopence farthing for fourteen pounds, so it comes cheaper to them." "Yes," I said, "they would save one halfpenny when they had bought eight lots of coal." "Yes, sir. I make just twopence on a hundredweight when they buy it like that." "No," I said, "you don't, for you cannot make eight complete lots out of one sack."

"Fourteen pounds of coal, please, Mrs. Jenkins!" Again a voice came from the depot. "John! John!" Again John came wearily downstairs to weigh the coal. He returned with twopence halfpenny, which he handed to his wife, and said: "A farthing change."

Mrs. Jenkins searched her small pile of coppers, but failed to find a farthing. "Is it Mrs. Brown?" she asked her husband. "Yes," was the reply. "Oh, then give her the halfpenny back, and tell her to owe me the farthing." John went into the shop, taking the halfpenny with him, and I heard a discussion going on, after which John returned with the coin, and said: "She won't take it." But Mrs. Brown followed him into the room with her fourteen pounds of coal in a small basket. "No, Mrs. Jenkins, I can't take it; I owe you two farthings now. If you keep the ha'penny I shall only owe you one, and I'll try and pay that off next time." "Never mind what you owe me, Mrs. Brown; you take the ha'penny. You have little children, and have no husband to work for[Pg 201] you like I have," was Mrs. Jenkins's reply. But Mrs. Brown was not to be put down, so after a protracted discussion the halfpenny remained in the possession of Mrs. Jenkins, and poor feeble John retired to rest.

I sat wondering at it all, quite lost in thought. Presently Mrs. Jenkins said: "I wish Mrs. Brown had taken that ha'penny." "Why?" I said. "Well, you see, she has little children who have no father, and they are so badly off." "But you are badly off, too. Your husband is ill, and ought to be in the hospital; he is not fit to be about." "I rest him all I can, but this afternoon I have these knickers and frock to make; that work pays better than coal when I can get it." "How much rent do you pay?" "Fifteen shillings and sixpence a week, but I let off seven and sixpence, so my rent comes to eight shillings." "But you lose your tenant sometimes, and the rooms are empty?" "Yes." "And sometimes you get a tenant that does not pay up?" "Yes." "And sometimes you allow poor women to have coal on credit, and you lose in that way?" "Yes," she said, and added slowly: "I wish I could have all that is owing to me." "Show me some of your debts." We went into the coal depot. "I have had to stop that woman," she said, pointing to a name and a lot of figures chalked up on a board. She owes me one and elevenpence farthing." I reckoned up the account. "Quite correct," I said.

"She had sixteen lots of coal for one and elevenpence farthing; she can't pay me at all now, she is so far behind. I ought to have stopped her[Pg 202] before, but I did not like to be hard on her." Several other "chalked up" accounts confronted me—one for sixpence, another for ninepence—but that one and elevenpence farthing was the heaviest account. It was too pitiful; I could inquire no further.

The difficulty of obtaining even minute quantities of coal constitutes one of the great anxieties of the very poor, and exposes them to unimaginable suffering and hardship.

To poor old women with chilly bones and thin blood, who especially need the glow and warmth of a substantial fire, the lack of coal constitutes almost, and in many cases quite, tragedy.

The poorest class of home-workers, who require warmth if their fingers are to be nimble and their boxes or bags are to be dried, must have some sort of a fire, even if it be obtained at the expense of food. Small wonder, then, that their windows are seldom opened, for the heat of the room must not be dissipated; they must be thrifty in that respect. During the winter, generally in January, I set out on a tour of discovery, my object being to find out old widows who manage to keep themselves without parish relief, and get their little living by making common articles for everyday use. Formerly I experienced great difficulty in finding the brave old things; I have no difficulty now, for at a day's notice I can assemble five hundred self-supporting widows to whom a single hundredweight of coal would loom so large that it would appear a veritable coal-mine.

So I ask my readers to accompany me on one[Pg 203] of these expeditions—in imagination, of course. Come, then, through this side-door, for it stands open, though not invitingly so, for the stairs are uncarpeted and dirty and the walls are crumbling and foul.

We pass the room on the ground-floor, and observe that it is half workshop and half retail-shop, for old furniture is renovated and placed in the shop-window for sale. Up one flight of unwashed stairs and past another workshop—this time a printer's. Up again! The stairs are still narrow, and the walls are still crumbling, the stairs still unwashed. We pass another workshop, mount more stairs, and then we come to a small landing and some narrow, very narrow, stairs that are scrupulously clean, though innocent of carpet or linoleum.

We are now at the very top of the house and in semi-darkness, but we discover the door of the room we are looking for. On rapping, we are told to "Come in." It is a small attic, just large enough to contain a bed, a table, and a small chest of drawers.

She sat at the table underneath the dormer window, and was busy at work making paper bags: a widow alone in the world, seventy-eight years of age, who had never received one penny from the parish in her life. Take notice of the little bedroom grate. It is a very small one, but you notice it is made much smaller by two pieces of brick being placed in it, one on each side, and between them a very small fire is burning, or trying to burn. She tells us that she gets fivepence per thousand for her paper bags, and that she buys[Pg 204] her own paste; that she works for her landlord, who stops her rent every week out of her earnings. She buys her coal by the quarter of a hundredweight, which costs her fivepence; she does not buy pennyworths. Sometimes the men below give her bits of wood, and the printer lets her have scraps of cardboard. She can't do with less than two quarters in the week, it is so cold, but she manages with a bit less in the summer-time. So the brave old woman gabbles on, telling us all we want to know. I produce some warm clothing, and her old eyes glisten; I give her a whole pound of tea in a nice canister, and I think I see tears; but I take her old skinny hand, all covered with paste, and say: "You must buy a whole hundredweight of good coal with that, or give it back to me; you must not use it for anything else." Ah, this was indeed too much for her, and she burst out hysterically: "Oh, don't mock me—a hundredweight of coal! I'll soon have those bricks out."

Come with me into another street. We have no stairs to climb this time, for the house consists of but two stories, and contains but four small rooms. We enter the front room on the ground-floor, and find three old women at work. There being no room or accommodation for us to sit, we stand just inside and watch them as they work. Two are widows bordering on seventy years of age; the other is a spinster of like years. One sits at a machine sewing trousers, of which there is a pile waiting near her. As soon as she has completed her portion of work she passes the trousers on to the other widow, who finishes them—that[Pg 205] is, she puts on the buttons, sewing the hem round the bottom of the trousers, and does all the little jobs that must needs be done by hand. When her part of the work is completed, she passes the trousers on to the spinster, who has the heaviest part of the task, for she is the "pre............
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