6 September 1908
IN THE SLUMS OF LONDON
BY RALPH BRADDOCK.
(This is the second of two articles written by Mr. Braddock on his experiences among the lower classes of London).
A rather nondescript collection of garments, borrowed for the occasion of two fellow Rowton House "inmates" who were about to take a week-end in the country, plug hat and all, transformed us for the nonce into a couple of "down and outers" that would have passed muster even on the Barbery Coast in Frisco.
Once inside "de rags," as Hersh, my friend, persisted in calling our garments, though points of continuity were observable in several rather separated portions of their make-up, we felt already several pegs lower in the social ladder than we had previously felt, even at the Rowton House.
When it came to the money question, I was in favor of taking at least a pound apiece, enough for any emergency, that might arise, but Hersh immediately tabooed the suggestion, saying that if we were going slumming we wanted to do it in approved style, that is, in the approved style of London's great east side. He also added that he had once tried, while a student in Germany, to live on twenty marks a week, with a small matter of a thousand marks in his pocket, and that he awoke one morning with his boots on to find that his riches had taken to themselves wings. His logic was good, so I agreed to the two shillings, though it seemed rather small for the two days that we purposed to spend on the east side.
Six o'clock of a mellow English morning found us aboard the workingman's train at the Hampstead tube station bound for the Isle of Dogs, via Stepney and Poplar. All around us were those peculiarly nerveless workingmen that only England seems able to produce. Most of them were pulling contentedly on their pipes and philosophizing, either over their own lots or that of old England. Though a number of groups in different cars were discussing the old age pension bill in rather high voices, some of the older ones saying they would be glad to see it passed, while the younger men were stridently contending that England was saddled with enough taxes without trying to support the worn-outs. I heard no swearing.
It is a well known fact that the Englishman of birth never goes farther than "By gad," "Do tell," or some other innocence, but to observe the same tacit culture among plain workingmen was a revelation to an American. Had the same train been loaded with American workingmen the amount of profanity used, if concentrated, would have been enough to shrivel the soul of Beelzebub.
Falling into conversation with a rather elderly workingman in the seat near me, we were soon on good terms, and I found that he had a wife and two grown-up daughters whom he supported on an average income of $145 a year. I asked him how he managed it, and he shrugged his shoulders, saying in a sort of half apology that his father had done so before him. His daughters, both of whom worked, one in a shoe factory and the other as a clerk, made the pitiful salaries of $2.50 in American money a week. For this class of people the old age pension bill means much, as it will be the means of many of them being saved from the poor-house, and even from begging in their old age.
Ten minutes of 7 landed us at the Isle of Dogs, and immediately there was a rush of the men off to their several places of employment, while some few started on the long, weary round hunting for work. As for my partner, and myself, we spent about an hour wandering up and down the wharves looking at the ships, many of them just in from the Orient and far-off Australia, then set off up Burdett Road into darkest London.
All around us was the swirl of a poverty-hounded people, old men and women crawling along, or haggling over prices in the dirty-looking shops along the way. As for the younger men they were no doubt off trying to wrest a living from a reluctant world. The young and middle-aged women, so far as I could see, were principally engaged in gossiping with their kind or in shrilly quarrelling with the vast hordes of hopelessly dirty children that one met everywhere.
Near Mile End Road we came upon a market. Such a sight as it was, the poor haggling with the poor for the necessities of life, while children and wretched old men and women dug in the refuse for the single beans or the half decayed fruit or vegetables that they might find there. Children, with pale and drawn faces, followed in the wake of wretched mothers whose dull lustreless eyes told of privations long endured. What does life mean to these wretched people?
Before I go farther I should like to say that over Hackney way the slums are being transformed, and that model tenements, each with its garden plot, are being built and lives of the poor being made less soul-harrowing than before.
A walk up Whitechapel, now the principal thoroughfare of the Jewish city, and the scene of the atrocious Jack-the-Ripper murders of a generation ago occupied the rest of the morning, and developed nothing new except intensifying the general impression of bricks and misery.
About noon, a beggar disguised as a match vendor piloted us into an eating place, where we got wretched food in wretched company for a wretched price. A kip-house, a beggars' lodging house, behind it, however, yielded much of interest.
Pushing open a greasy door, I had no more than stuck my head inside than I was greeted with "Hello, Yank." It was one of my fellow countrymen, though so long a resident of England that he even had the English intonation. Later on he told me in confidence that he would have been in America years ago but he pawned his rubber boots when he first came over and never had enough money to buy another pair. He was really an intelligent man and seemed out of place in the wretched kip-house where we were.
He had been a beggar for years, "a natural born one," he urged rather proudly. Like most of them he had started at the top, that is as a room-beggar, the beggar that writes agony letters to well to do or prominent people begging sums of money. It takes a person of marked ability to do this successfully, to add just the right touches without overdoing it, and it certainly takes a delicate knowledge of human nature. He was doing nicely when one day in his cups he wrote a letter to a prominent English woman that got him imprisoned for five years for blackmail. When he came out he was a broken man, and his degeneration was rapid.
For a while he did the fainting-gag. This is a good one and is usually worked on clergymen. Gaining admission to the clergyman's studio through one means or another, there is the usual appeal for charity. If refused, the beggar's histrionic ability is called into play, there is the mute passion of the starving one, ending with a few gasps and a dead faint. Some women, and now and then a man, do this "beautifully," as my beggar friend told me, and it almost always is successful in extracting money and food from the hoodwinked clergyman.
My friend played this game until it was worked out, then went to street begging. I saw him at this one day in Kensington a week later, and he certainly was clever. He seemed to know instinctively just when to whine and when to tell a straight story. He also had the ability to make men laugh, a valuable ability in dealing with the sterner sex, as even the man that is impervious to pity can scarcely deny "tuppence" to the man with whom he laughs. When I met him he had four shillings in his pocket, the net result of a day's begging. But like most English beggars of his class he spent three shillings for drink and the other shilling for the necessities of life.
He took both my partner and myself for the simon-pure article of the "down and outer" and gave us a little advice before we left that was rather humorous, though he did not mean it to be. It was "Stick to beggin', my boys, give it yer best thoughts, and you'll succeed. Don't be a gay cat and get discouraged and work, but be an artist whatever yer be." We promised and departed.
Another kip-house that we entered, built like the forecastle of a ship, with bunks around the four sides and a stove in the open space in the middle, yielded nothing but the half-pathetic, half-humorous sight of two frowsy old tramps rocking two babies to sleep. The mothers of the children lay in their bunks smoking clay pipes and comparing notes on begging. Though one of the men tried to engage me in conversation, offering me his "bible," i.e., bundle of trinkets, and the like, to peddle, we retreated as soon as we saw "ladies" were present.
That night it rained, one of those long, drippy, drizzly rains that we sometimes have here in the fall, and my partner and I crept into the deep, wide doorway of a business house on Whitechapel for shelter. We were no more than comfortably ensconced than the figure of a girl with a shawl around her head was framed in the doorway against the gas-lighted street without. She evidently did not see us, for she crept into one corner and began to cry softly.
"'Sdeath, a maiden in distress," mock-heroically whispered Hersh to me, though I could see that he was really touched.
A moment later he spoke to her, at which she started, and turned her face towards us. For sheer beauty of face she surpassed any girl I have ever seen. Only about fifteen years of age, her face was not yet coarsened by the hard usage of life, and showed as clear cut as some antique bronze. Beautifully pencilled eyebrows shaded big gray, dreamy eyes. Her nose was faultless, while as for her mouth I had always imagined that such lip-curves were mostly lurking underground in the south as fragments of forgotten marble. Her hair, though matted to her head by the moisture, was like fine gold.
I was captivated, but as for my partner he was her willing slave, and after he had heard her story-true or false-I know not-of a sick father and swift-coming starvation, he insisted on giving her his two shillings. She thanked us prettily, then in a pause between showers disappeared down the street homeward.
That night we slept in a "tuppenny" house in Buxton road, where we also got a breakfast the next morning for a like sum apiece. The second day was so much like the first that it would be wearisome to recount it. It is perhaps sufficient to say that we were dead tired of the slums by the end of the second day, and when we got back to Rowton House agreed to forget all about it, with the single exception of our adventure with the single exception of our adventure with the "Rose of the Tenements."