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The Maelstrom, 1850-1900

In an interesting scene-setting for what we have called “the rescue mentality,” John Stroud paints a vivid picture of the society which spawned it.


We have been brainwashed about the Victorian era. We have been told too often about the Good Old Days, about the naughty nineties, about the great days of the music-hall, about the peace and prosperity, about the food and the drink and the Empire and the country-houses and the golden sovereigns and the lovely times when there were always twenty shillings in the pound. But what happened if you did not have a pound, if you did not even have a shilling?

We have heard so much from prosperous middle-class gentlemen who look back nostalgically to life in London in the nineteenth century when London was the commercial centre of the world. Of course it was: it was a boom town. More people than ever before were making more money than ever before: we have all watched the Forsytes doing it, and becoming Men of Property.

But in 1875 a widower doing odd jobs was summonsed for failing to send his boys to school. He was fined five shillings, but as he had not got five shillings he was sent to prison for five days. On his release he found that he and his boys had been evicted. In desperation he handed over his sons to a travelling showman, who exhibited one of them as ‘a living skeleton’.

London was a boom town: by 1870 the volume of Britain’s trade exceeded that of France, Germany and Italy put together, and was three or four times as great as that of the United States. London was the commercial centre of the world, and it needed clerks, accountants, bankers, messengers, salesmen, advertisers, porters and caretakers. So if you were educated at all, and were reliable and kept sober, you could join in the general prosperity, for there were unprecedented opportunities for employment and on average you could earn twenty-nine shillings a week.

But if you were not educated, or were old, or were sick, or were a woman on her own, you had to cut firepapers, or mould wax flowers, or try and sell watercress. You would be like the widow in Seven Dials who made matchboxes for 21/2d. a gross: so that if she and all her six children worked from early morning until one a.m., they could earn half a crown a day. Or you could make brushes, pushing the little tufts of bristles into the holes and binding them in place with wire: every brush had four hundred holes, and when you had filled all four hundred, you had earned 4d.

London the commercial centre, London the moneymaker, needed services. It needed transport, and transport needed horses, and horses needed stables. There were more than a hundred thousand horses and donkeys, and some oxen, quartered in London, and every morning trainloads of manure were dragged out of the metropolis, and in the hot summers the city was black with flies gorging themselves on the droppings and swarming in the foodshops. Cholera raged in London in 1846, 1849, 1853 and 1866, and continued to break out, though on a smaller scale, right through ‘the naughty nineties’.

London needed railways and goods depots and docks. Two thousand people were made homeless in the East End when new docks were excavated there; but nobody did anything about them.

So, if you could get a job as a docker or a drayman or a groom or a porter or a navvy or a builder or a railwayman, or if you were strong enough to carry boxes and bales and barrels and stones and girders, then you were all right and you could earn better money than you could down on the farm. But if you were not too strong, or had a touch of consumption, or were looking old, or had had insufficient food for a few weeks, then you wouldn’t be picked for a job and you would be unemployed. And if you were unemployed, you were punished. You were not given assistance, you had to earn it: and under the Poor Law, you had, if you were an ‘able-bodied male’, to break five bushels of stones, or pick oakum all day, before you were given sixpence and an allowance of bread weighed out according to the numbers of your children. And if you and your mates protested against this treatment, the military were called out to attack you.

But the country boys knew nothing of unemployment: they only knew that London was a boom town. They knew that a fair wage in the country was twelve shillings a week, that the average wage in London was nearly thirty shillings; and so they poured in, in their thousands, fifty thousand a year, a thousand a week. Because the country lads looked sturdy and ruddy-faced and strong, they tended to pick up the jobs as fetchers and carriers and humpers; and more and more Londoners were pushed back and over the edge of the pit into destitution. We know that by the 1880's, three hundred thousand people in London were officially classed as ‘poor’, and of these one-third were officially described as ‘in want’.

But this great influx of people — this gold-rush, so to speak — created other major problems. Never before in history had so many people been so densely packed together, and there were no efficient public services in existence, not even of the most elementary kind like water-supply, sewage disposal, fire prevention and public health. The rudimentary services which did exist were hopelessly swamped, until a situation could arise like this one, reported by a contemporary writer,

We passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, which in the bright light appeared the colour of green tea. As we gazed in horror at the pool we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it, we saw a whole tier of doorless privies built over it, and we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it; the limbs of vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble; yet, as we stood gazing in horror at the sewer, we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink...

And there was a housing shortage. To be sure, there was a tremendous amount of building going on, and all round the metropolis suburbs were spreading outwards like bloodstains through a bandage; but these suburbs were for the clerks and letter-copiers and accountants and general office workers who could afford the fares to work. The fetchers and carriers and pushers and pullers had to live close to their work; and so in the inner ring — which ran from Paddington to Marylebone, Camden, Islington, Hackney, Aldgate, Bermondsey, Southwark and Lambeth — there grew a desperate battle for shelter of any kind, until a medical officer of the time could write,

Instances are innumerable in which a single room is occupied by a whole family — whatever may be its number, whatever the ages and sexes of the children; births and deaths go on side by side; where the mother in travail or the child with smallpox, or the corpse waiting interment, has no separation from the rest. It is no uncommon thing, in a room twelve feet square or less, to find three or four families stayed together...

So, at the heart of the biggest and wealthiest city in the world, there was this dark stain of the inner ring, where dwelt most of the three hundred thousand people ‘officially classed as poor’: half-starved, a prey to diseases of all kinds, rack-rented, barely employable, and crammed together in rooms, quarter-rooms, cellars, attics — one family slept for six months on a heap of soot. Always, at the backs of all these people, was the fear of death by starvation or by infectious disease.

In such conditions, certain things inevitably flourished. One was drunkenness desperate drinking, largely of gin, a desperate drive for cheap oblivion. In 1884, in the one year alone, twenty-five thousand people were charged with being drunk and disorderly. Another was crime, especially stealing. In rainy weather Mission Halls spouted water like fountains because the gutters were blocked with empty purses, flung up there by the pickpockets. It was not safe to walk the streets alone at night, not safe even for policemen. And the third thing which flourished was prostitution. Desperate times forced people into seeking desperate remedies. In the sixties it was estimated that fifty thousand women walked the streets; a visiting Frenchman said they looked like ‘a march-past of dead women. The impression is not one of debauchery, but of abject, miserable poverty’.

London the boom town produced one more phenomenon: a sense of acute excitement. The feverish scrambling after money, the high rewards for success and the horrors of failure, the tearing-down and rebuilding, the whole atmosphere of a society in the throes of violent change, produced at one end of the scale an intense intellectual excitement, a clash of arguments, ideas, discoveries and challenges in religion, in politics, in the arts and in science. But down among ‘the submerged tenth’, down in the inner ring, this atmosphere of feverish excitement brought out the darker side of human nature. There, greed, violence, perversion and brutality were the fruits and Jack the Ripper the symbol of them. Prostitution does not flourish just because there is a supply of desperate women: there has to be a demand as well. On the dark side of Victorian life there seems to have been a demand not only for women, but for very young women and children.

In this hell, in which so many persons died unnoticed and unlamented, the children were in a perilous situation. Few in the inner ring had homes which we today would even recognise as such; few had enough to eat; many did not live very long. If they grew up, many grew up stunted or deformed through a bad diet, or were willfully neglected, or were savagely ill-treated, or knew none but drunken parents. Because the expectation of life was shorter in central London than anywhere else in Britain, and much shorter in Victorian Britain than it is today, many were orphaned at tender ages.

So, for one reason or another, swarms of children were let loose in the London streets to live by their wits. Nobody cared very much about them: the officials of the Poor Law were too overwhelmed with work to want to go out hunting for more. If destitute children were actually brought in, then the relieving officer would take them to one of the huge institutions such as the one at Banstead, where were incarcerated hundreds and hundreds of children with shaven heads and ugly clothing; and no free-wheeling street arab chose to go there. The police had no power to intervene unless the children were actually detected in crime; as happened in 1860, for instance, when a boy of twelve who had been running a gang of young pickpockets was sentenced to, five years’ penal servitude. But often the children would risk that fate; for often they would be beaten unmercifully by their parents and forced by them to go out and prostitute themselves or steal. Sometimes they would choose to go on the run rather than return ‘home’.

And so in 1862 our visiting Frenchman, Hippolyte Tame, could write in his diary, ‘The whole place is alive with street-boys, bare-footed, filthy, turning cartwheels for a penny. They swarm on the stairs down to the Thames, more stunted, more deformed, more repulsive than the street-urchins of Paris.’ In 1876 Dr. Barnardo estimated that there were thirty thousand children loose in the streets of London; the same figure was repeated by another investigator a decade later. They lived by their wits, stealing, begging, sweeping crossings, selling matches, flitting from one rough shelter to another; in winter, many slept in dung-heaps, for the warmth. If they had money, they might doss down in ‘common lodging houses’, which were usually insanitary dens inhabited by all kinds of rogues, vagabonds and drifters. The boys stole, using sharp knives to slit the pockets of the passers-by; what the girls did can be left to the imagination. In one area of Bermondsey, every other house was a brothel.

So we build up a picture which is far removed from the conventional one of a peaceful. and prosperous England behaving itself decorously under a dear old queen. Instead we can see that life in the inner ring was dark, savage, vicious and turbulent. For poor people it had perhaps always been so — one may turn back the pages of history and find many dark times. In Victorian times, what was new was the unprecedentedly large number of people thrust into this way of life and so densely packed together: one medical officer described London as ‘this pestilential heaping-up of human beings’. Towards the end of the eighties, during one of the economic depressions which kept hitting London’s trades, one hundred thousand unemployed men marched on Trafalgar Square: the police lost control and two squadrons of Life Guards were called out and charged the crowd.

Clearly violence, crime, vice, poverty and ill-health on such a vast scale cried out for action: the ‘West Enders’, or those of the outer ring, if we may dub them so, were threatened by this menace to their own well-being. Action, however, was not at first taken by the Government. Today, we are so used to calling upon the Government to deal with this or that problem that it is surprising to realise that for a large part of Victoria’s reign, nearly half of it, there was strong opposition to Government ‘interference’ with any part of social life. Nor did action come from the churches, as organised bodies. Action came first from individuals, usually members of the churches, usually members of the evangelical wings.

From about 1850 onwards, more and more of these individuals began penetrating the darkness of the inner ring. They were not social reformers: they regarded themselves primarily as missionaries and rescuers. Often they would begin by establishing Mission Halls, preaching the doctrine of Christ the, Saviour; later, these Halls would become relief-centres, soup-kitchens, refuges, ragged schools and clothing depots. Some individual workers reached out towards particular age-groups or occupations: there were missions to navvies, to soldiers, to merchant sailors. Some tackled particular problems, such as those of drunkenness, prostitution, juvenile crime or physical handicap.

These pioneers, who acted when nobody else would act, were of all kinds and no doubt driven by different motives. Some of their names are well-remembered, like Dr. Barnardo, General Booth and Josephine Butler; other wonderful people have been quite forgotten, like Ellice Hopkins, Catharine Marsh and Ellen Ranyard. Most of the pioneers were middle-class and fairly well-to-do; some, like dear little Marian Bowers, were extremely poor.
Of them all, one of the most interesting was a pale, frail, earnest little clerk named Edward de Montjoie Rudolf.

This feature: The opening chapter of Stroud, J. (1971) 13 Penny Stamps: The Story of the Church of England Children's Society from its beginnings as ‘Waifs and Strays’. London: Hodder and Stoughton