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From: "The Nineteenth Century" (June 1924)

BETHNAL GREEN has been described as London's poorest slum, and I do not quarrel with the term. It is a very dreadful place. Yet the approach is not particularly disagreeable. Bethnal Green Road is a wide street; Cambridge Road, through which it passes, is a good thoroughfare; and even Green Street, into which it runs on its way to a bridge leading to the Roman Road of Bow, is not unpleasant. But on each side of Green Street lie dozens of small streets and alleys, ugly, mean, uncomfortable. It was a matter of surprise to me to find out that some of these deplorable houses are only about thirty years old; I had supposed that the conscience of the nation was then stirring in its sleep.

A few days ago I was in Bethnal Green, and turned up a narrow street off Green Street, thence into a narrower one, and found myself entering a sort of slit between houses, an alley, a cul de sac, so narrow that a stranger might well miss it, not dreaming that anyone could live there. Yet several families exist within these hemming walls, in the houses which face each other across a yard or so of flagging.

The family I wished to visit lives at the top of one of these houses, and rent two rooms. On the right is the bedroom - the bed usually unmade - on the left is the 'living'-room; the suite is inhabited by a man, his wife, seven sons and one daughter, three of the children being under four years of age.

There was a fire in the living room, for the day before had been washing day, and on cords stretched immediately over the family dining-table hung a collection of wet garments. For a few moments the mother managed to quiet her 'three under four,' and sank thankfully into a chair for a chat.

'The rent is 8s. 6d. a week,' she said. 'If only there were any place to put anything! There is not so much as a cupboard. Or if only we could get another room, now that the eldest is getting a big boy, and goes out to work ! He's getting on well, and his money's useful; he works at a packing place, but when trade is bad he has to stand down. My husband is out of work, and likely to be. Chest trouble, you know. Doctor says it's both sides now.'

In the East End we never mention consumption or cancer; one is chest trouble,' the other is 'inside trouble.'

'He is out in the Park now,' she said. But almost immediately in walked the master of these two rooms - a well-set-up figure, alarmingly thin, a man about forty, with a white, shadowed face. He also stopped to talk.

'I am a soldier, or was. When I was a lad I went all through the Boer war, and was wounded; I have got both the medals. Then I worked at the docks, or at any odd jobs I could find. When this last war came, I joined up again - the Marines - and served until they invalided me out. Yes, there is a pension: 8s. a week for me and 7s. for the wife and children. Theirs used to be 8s., .too, but the eldest is just beyond the age limit now. We're crowded here, but there are no rooms to be had. We should do all right if I could manage to work. It's that chest trouble that worries me.'

And across a yard of passage was the room in which this man, suffering from tuberculosis, sleeps with his wife and as many of the children as can be packed in; the elder boys sleep in the living-room. Yet the mother was cheerful; the faces, at least, of the children were clean, and they looked happy. The room was a muddle of furniture of all sorts, a cooking, drying, working nursery. Above the mantelpiece hung a faded photograph of Guido's portrait of Beatrice Cenci. Noticing that my eyes rested on it for a second, as I wondered by what strange chance it had made its way hither, the man said:

'I am always wondering what is the story about that.'

I had not the wit to invent a legend on the spur of the moment, nor the heart to outline to him the tragedy; his own face was as sad a tale as I cared to read. I do not know what relief this man gets when he is out of work; he did not tell me, and I did not like to ask an old soldier. There must be some, or the family could not live.

A particularly cheerful friend of mine lives with her husband and family in a little street on the opposite side of Green Street. She is one of the most sunny people I know. If I were to describe her as a coster she might be offended, but she does take her stand on Saturdays at a barrow in the street; and I cannot help thinking that the fresh air and the gay chaffering have something to do with her buoyant spirits. At any rate, she is content with life, and more than content with her husband and children. She is thirty-five years of age, and has nine children living. The tenth she lost, to her great grief, nearly a year ago. When we paid her a visit of consolation then, she was in tears, lamenting the unearthly quiet of her house. At that moment seven of her children were in the room or the passage outside, two being away at work, but she said: 'Quiet as the grave without him. I can't bear it.' Her only consolation is that she has a framed enlarged photograph of the infant, taken when at the point of death. But deadly quiet is not likely to be her lot in the near future, for there will be another baby before many months have passed.

'I am going in to have it,' she announced.

'To a hospital? You will like that better?'

'Oh, well, it's the London,' she said. 'Why, they're kind to you there.'

She is so cheerful, so industrious, that I think the coming child ought to be a good citizen. The cluster round her all look clean and well fed.

Her husband makes boxes for a boot factory, and occasionally sells boots for the firm, on commission, from a barrow in the street. He is generally out when I call; but his praises are sounded.

'I am the only woman in Bethnal Green that knows what her husband earns,' said his wife triumphantly; '21. 16s. a week it is; and he turns out his pockets on this table.'

They have four rooms, rent 18s. 6d. a week. My friend's only trouble is that her two eldest children, who have left school, and are earning from 10s. to 11s. a week each, are beginning to show signs of becoming 'grand,' and want to know why they cannot have a real parlour. Mother does not see how it can be managed.

There is often a little difficulty when a boy leaves school and starts earning money. The money is more than welcome; but he expects extra food, and possibly extra consideration. And the form of his future 'young lady' looms ahead. One mother, speaking of her boy's prospects, posed us completely.

'Yes, he's doing a lot better now, since he took to the devil 'opping.'

We are used to curious trades, but this was a puzzle. My mind flew off to a Cornish village in which the devil was successfully danced out of the place; my friend's mind sped to a Kentish hop garden. We were wrong. The lad had found employment at a little photographer's, and was being taught developing.

There are more romantic occupations than box-making in Bethnal Green. It was once a centre of the silk-weaving industry, and I have the pleasure of knowing a delightful old lady who still carries on the craft in her own home. The front room of the upper storey of the house in which she lives is almost filled by two great mills, wonderful structures of considerable age. When I called last, on a bitterly cold day, she was at work there, without a fire. Indeed, I am not sure that a fire could have been lit in the room, for one of the old wooden mills nearly touched the fireplace. Nothing gives her greater pleasure than to show her skill, to see interest and admiration in a visitor's eyes, as she works a treadle with her foot, sets her mill revolving, manipulates thirty-five bobbins, or deftly gathers up the threads on her outstretched fingers for the necessary crossing.

'I am a warper, not really a weaver,' she said. 'This black silk is for scarves. There's another lot I've just done, blue and white shot; it's more interesting. I was 'prenticed for seven years when I was fourteen, and got 3d. a week and my keep, raised at the end to 6d. a week.'

'How did you get your mills? They must cost a lot.'

'They do cost a lot now, and they cost a good bit to mend when one of the old bits of wood goes with a snap. They were left me by the people I worked for. There's an old lady comes in to work at the other one when she's well enough; but she's getting on, nearly eighty, and feels the cold.'

My friend is about seventy. She can earn 1l. a week, when she can get the orders. She loves her mills, and loves her work. The only time she was ever known to be 'a little bit trying' was when a severe attack of rheumatism crippled her hands, and she could not feel her threads; then she was nearly in despair.

This passion for work is a very real thing, not only for the money earned, but for the work itself. There is an old woman of eighty, living near, who strings children's bats at 3 d. a dozen. She only earns half a crown a week (she has the old age pension), but she says:

'I have always worked, and I always mean to. I used to be a shirt-maker. Very different things were when I was young to what they are now. Why, nowadays women get paid 4s. 6d. a dozen for machining them; I did not get half that.'

The position of holders of old age pensions in Bethnal Green is a difficult one. The women, at least, seek in every way for some means of'augmenting the 10s. a week by doing odd jobs. This is necessary, for the average weekly rent of one room is from 4s. to 5s., and in the winter months coal will cost them every week from 2s. 8d. to 3s. After gas and insurances have been paid, only 1s. 6d. to 2s. remains for food, and nothing at all for clothes. If they cannot get employment in their own trade, they eke out their means by 'minding' a young child of a neighbour whilst the mother goes out to work, or prepare the midday meal for school-children, or take in washing, or sit up for a few hours in the night with some sick person.

Here is an instance of the privations endured by a brave woman who has done home work nearly all her life. Miss C. is aged fifty-nine; she is a brush-drawer by trade, entirely dependent on her earnings. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and begins to find that her sight is failing. She rents a six-room house at 1l. a week, and lets off four of the rooms for 15s. The current price paid for brush-drawing is 2 d. per hundred holes; but work has been very irregular, and for some time her earnings have not averaged more than 10s. a week. She is gradually pawning her possessions to buy food and coal.

The Wages Boards have succeeded, certainly, in increasing the rate of pay for home work; but, unfortunately, this has limited the amount of work given out. Box-making, for instance, is far better paid; but nearly all the box-makers I know are in distress, because there is so little work. By the way, I fancy that if anyone really wanted a simple test to show the state of trade it would be a good idea to inquire into the matter of box-making. As one of my friends put it: 'You see, boxes aren't anything; no one thinks of them when things go well. But when trade is bad, why, then they do.'

There are still cases in which the rate of pay seems alarmingly low. One woman and her brother share two small rooms; he is an invalid, and spends a lot of his time in the hospital. When he is home he has an allowance of 15s. a week. Until last year this woman was helping to support a crippled sister. She machines youths' waistcoats, not doing the pressing or the buttonholes, but finding her own thread. For the commonest kind of waist coat, made of rough tweed, she is paid 5 d. Sometimes she gets an order which she much prefers, that is, to make white waistcoats, to be shipped abroad, at 6d. each; and it is only fair to say that at times she gets what she calls really good work, that is, to make evening waistcoats for men; they take much more work, but she can get 4s. 6d. each for them. We asked her to lend us one of the 5d. waistcoats to show to a friend interested in the trade; but she refused point-blank, saying that if she talked too much she might never get any more work, and then there would be only the workhouse in front of her. But she showed her book in which orders and payments are entered.

One difficulty is that hardly any of the poor - even if they are earning fairly good wages - have any reserve on which they can fall back in difficult times, or any fund from which they can replace their worn-out household necessaries. I once knew the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, though his name was certainly not De Montfort, and he had no beautiful daughter Bessie. He went out with a barrel-organ, whilst his wife sat at home making match boxes. Between them they just managed to pay their rent, and to buy food of a sort for themselves and the children. Meanwhile the 'home,' which means the furniture, went to wrack and ruin. A friend of mine, hearing rumours of distress, took me to Bethnal Green to see the family, and the memory of that visit will not fade from my mind. In one tiny room there was a broken iron bedstead and a chair. The bedstead was covered with a filthy piece of sacking, and on it slept, in their clothes, three little boys, huddled together, covered over with all sorts of bits and pieces of old rugs and mats. The dress of their mother cannot be described. My friend and I left hurriedly to see about another bed, bedding and clothing. Help was forthcoming, and the family was rescued from a state of such utter desolation that it had brought one member into the shadow of a police court. It was not at all a good sight in a Christian land.

There is one dread which ever haunts the minds of the poor. Death does not frighten them in the least - 'a friend's voice' - but the thought of having to die in a workhouse infirmary is appalling. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that they will not be well treated. They feel also that they will lose their identity; and - it is a small point, perhaps - the elder married women especially do so hate being addressed as 'Brown' or 'Jones.' In the light of this dread, please let me tell a story told me by Mr. Holmes.

He got to know a woman who was in the habit of getting drunk, fighting, and going to prison with dreadful regularity. He saw her in prison, and suggested that she was wasting her life.

'Who cares? 'she demanded.

'Well, I do. When you are let out, go straight to this address, it is my home, and my wife will take care of you for a time until you can get work.'

'Ho yuss! And what'll she want me to do?'

'Nothing, only rest, and enjoy yourself if you can.'

When she was released she did go to his house, taking a little refreshment on the way, and fully prepared to leave promptly, and make an evening of it, if she were not well received. But Mrs. Holmes welcomed her as if she had been a most desirable guest, and she decided to stay and see. For the first few days she was looking out for the 'catch'; but, finding there was none, she settled down in great content, and insisted on doing her share of the house work. Some weeks passed; then one afternoon she went out for a walk, and did not return. Very sorrowfully her host made inquiries at police stations, fearing that she might have met old friends and have got into difficulties once more. But the police knew nothing at all about her. Then he feared a street accident, and sent round to the hospitals. No, she had simply vanished, and left no trace. Several months later he got an urgent summons to an infirmary, where a woman, dying of cancer, wanted to see him. He found his late guest. With the ghost of a smile on her face, she said:

'Did you down finely, didn't I?'

'I don't know about that; I have been very anxious about you; we were sorry we had not made you happy.'

'Happy? Lord bless you! It's the. only time in my life that I. have been happy. But when the pain began again, I knew what it meant. I had been cut about twice before, and they said there couldn't be a third time. So I says to myself: "What am I going to do? They'll never turn me out. If I stay here for the end, there'll be Mrs. Holmes running up and down stairs waiting on me. And they're the only people that have ever been kind to me. It's not fair, and I won't do it." So I slipped away here, where I never thought to be, gave another name, and waited until it was too late for me to be moved before I would let you know. That's all.'

It was all - here. In a few days her valiant spirit passed away.

I do not want to dwell over much on the virtues to be found in the slums; I do not wish to appear to be a disciple of the late esteemed Hannah More, and to be capable of reminding starving people, as she did, that, though they had suffered from scarcity of food, they had suffered no scarcity of religious instruction. I would as soon point out to them, in her inimitable words, 'the advantages they derive from the benefits of distinction in fortune, which enables the high to assist the low.' There are people who have such a touching belief in the good effects of hardships borne by others that they are capable of congratulating the poor on the happy chance which has deprived them of all comfort here in order to accentuate the rapture which will be theirs hereafter, whilst they, for their own part, choose - both. But, all the same, I am always coming across proofs of staggering heroism in mean streets, without liking the streets one whit the better, though I love the heroes and heroines. One such proof reached me a day or two ago. The Home Workers' Aid Association has a small fund from which, as far as it can be stretched, certain very old or infirm members are allowed a little pension of 10s. a month. It sounds almost absurd to say that such a trifle makes a very real difference to them; but it does, and the pensions are waited for with the utmost eagerness. A poor and ill woman whom I know has been receiving this little sum for more than a year. It is the only addition to her allowance from the guardians of 15s. a week. She wrote to me as follows. I have changed the spelling:-

The Vicar has offered me 2s. 6d. a week. I would not say 'Yes' at first, for he has been so good to me, paying for someone to sit up at night with me out of his own pocket. But he says this comes from a lady to do with the Church; I do not know who. I think I ought to give up the home workers' pension if I take this. There's so many that want the help. Please tell me what I should do.

I do not think the East End is quite as dreary a place as it was even twenty years ago. There is such a great power for good at work. It is the Church; by this I mean the blessed company of all faithful people - Church of England clergy, Roman Catholic priests, Nonconformist ministers, the Salvation Army, and the irregulars, those who do not acknowledge our Lord in word, but serve Him in deed, and, being sealed of the tribe of Abou ben Adhem, show their love of God in their love of their fellow-men.

Yet the distress is very great. In many cases life is scarcely worth living. Too often there is a touch of wistfulness in the eyes of inhabitants of Bethnal Green when a funeral starts. The determination on the part of neighbours to see that one of their own people has a seemly 'send-off' has led to a curious custom. Directly a death occurs some energetic man or woman in the street goes from house to house asking for money for flowers - that is, wreaths. The appeal is seldom disregarded. I have known a woman with only 6d. in the house give 3d. for flowers for someone she hardly knew. The attitude of the overdriven towards death may be illustrated by an overheard conversation between two very poor women. There had been a tragic accident, and the victim lay in the mortuary. One of the women had had the good fortune to see the body; the other had not. She asked:-

'How did she look?'

'Well, there was a rather stern look on her face.'

'Stern? Why, that's not right. Should have been a smile. No need for her to look stern now.'

Bethnal Green is very patient; it endures a lot of misery in silence. Personally I think it is more utterly hopeless in summer than in winter. When the sun beats down on that wilderness of closely packed houses, it is as if you were in a tunnel with the roof off, and only one yard of blue sky above you. The great redeeming feature is Victoria Park, a really noble space of over 200 acres, a park boasting fine trees, masses of flowering shrubs, abundance of seats, and a good-sized lake. It is the lungs of Bethnal Green, the resting place for the weary, the playground of children; without it conditions would be intolerable.

Only once have I heard a real outcry, an outburst of rage, against the place. This was in a tram, and I do not think the speaker was an Englishman. If only he had confined himself to the housing question he would have been on safe ground; he had only to ask us to look around us. But he insisted on telling his fellow-passengers all about the class which was trampling on the people and sucking their blood. I gathered that these feats were being performed simultaneously. He promised them a very different state of affairs shortly. There was an impending strike, over which he rejoiced greatly; but what his soul waited for was a general strike. 'Give us that, only twenty-four hours of it, and we'll have them all on their knees to us - yes, all the men that go about now with gold chains stretched across their waistcoats.'

This was said with such pointed ferocity that I glanced at the man sitting next me. He appeared to be a prosperous tradesman, and, sure enough, he had a gold watch-chain. The prosperous one said not one word, but he gravely lifted his hat in acknowledgment of the speaker's good wishes. The action was so unexpected, and showed so much humour, that the tram rocked with laughter, and the orator remembered an appointment and got out. A very poor woman sitting on my other side said to me:

'Don't he talk beautifully? But there - '

She sighed, and her sigh meant 'I have known four-and-twenty leaders of revolt.'

by Miss Sydney K. Phelps

Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line..

Related pages:
  Bethnal Green
       Press Reports: Eastern Argus - 13 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Eastern Post and City Chronicle - 7 December 1889 
       Victorian London: Bethnal Green 
       Victorian London: Bethnal Green Road 
       Victorian London: Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green 
       Victorian London: More Revelations of Bethnal Green 

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