The People of the Abyss
Part 1 out of 4
This etext was prepared from the Thomas Nelson and Sons edition
by David Price, email email@example.com
THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS
by Jack London
The chief priests and rulers cry:-
"O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,
We build but as our fathers built;
Behold thine images how they stand
Sovereign and sole through all our land.
"Our task is hard--with sword and flame,
To hold thine earth forever the same,
And with sharp crooks of steel to keep,
Still as thou leftest them, thy sheep."
Then Christ sought out an artisan,
A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,
And a motherless girl whose fingers thin
Crushed from her faintly want and sin.
These set he in the midst of them,
And as they drew back their garment hem
For fear of defilement, "Lo, here," said he,
"The images ye have made of me."
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
The experiences related in this volume fell to me in the summer of
1902. I went down into the under-world of London with an attitude
of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer. I was open
to be convinced by the evidence of my eyes, rather than by the
teachings of those who had not seen, or by the words of those who
had seen and gone before. Further, I took with me certain simple
criteria with which to measure the life of the under-world. That
which made for more life, for physical and spiritual health, was
good; that which made for less life, which hurt, and dwarfed, and
distorted life, was bad.
It will be readily apparent to the reader that I saw much that was
bad. Yet it must not be forgotten that the time of which I write
was considered "good times" in England. The starvation and lack of
shelter I encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery
which is never wiped out, even in the periods of greatest
Following the summer in question came a hard winter. Great numbers
of the unemployed formed into processions, as many as a dozen at a
time, and daily marched through the streets of London crying for
bread. Mr. Justin McCarthy, writing in the month of January 1903,
to the New York Independent, briefly epitomises the situation as
"The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving
crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food
and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their
means in trying to raise supplies of food for the famishing
residents of the garrets and cellars of London lanes and alleys.
The quarters of the Salvation Army in various parts of London are
nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and the hungry for whom
neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided."
It has been urged that the criticism I have passed on things as they
are in England is too pessimistic. I must say, in extenuation, that
of optimists I am the most optimistic. But I measure manhood less
by political aggregations than by individuals. Society grows, while
political machines rack to pieces and become "scrap." For the
English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness
go, I see a broad and smiling future. But for a great deal of the
political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see
nothing else than the scrap heap.
CHAPTER I--THE DESCENT
"But you can't do it, you know," friends said, to whom I applied for
assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of
London. "You had better see the police for a guide," they added, on
second thought, painfully endeavouring to adjust themselves to the
psychological processes of a madman who had come to them with better
credentials than brains.
"But I don't want to see the police," I protested. "What I wish to
do is to go down into the East End and see things for myself. I
wish to know how those people are living there, and why they are
living there, and what they are living for. In short, I am going to
live there myself."
"You don't want to LIVE down there!" everybody said, with
disapprobation writ large upon their faces. "Why, it is said there
are places where a man's life isn't worth tu'pence."
"The very places I wish to see," I broke in.
"But you can't, you know," was the unfailing rejoinder.
"Which is not what I came to see you about," I answered brusquely,
somewhat nettled by their incomprehension. "I am a stranger here,
and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order
that I may have something to start on."
"But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere."
And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on
rare occasions may be seen to rise.
"Then I shall go to Cook's," I announced.
"Oh yes," they said, with relief. "Cook's will be sure to know."
But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers,
living sign-posts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to
bewildered travellers--unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and
celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet,
but to the East End of London, barely a stone's throw distant from
Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!
"You can't do it, you know," said the human emporium of routes and
fares at Cook's Cheapside branch. "It is so--hem--so unusual."
"Consult the police," he concluded authoritatively, when I had
persisted. "We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East
End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing
whatsoever about the place at all."
"Never mind that," I interposed, to save myself from being swept out
of the office by his flood of negations. "Here's something you can
do for me. I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing,
so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me."
"Ah, I see! should you be murdered, we would be in position to
identify the corpse."
He said it so cheerfully and cold-bloodedly that on the instant I
saw my stark and mutilated cadaver stretched upon a slab where cool
waters trickle ceaselessly, and him I saw bending over and sadly and
patiently identifying it as the body of the insane American who
WOULD see the East End.
"No, no," I answered; "merely to identify me in case I get into a
scrape with the 'bobbies.'" This last I said with a thrill; truly,
I was gripping hold of the vernacular.
"That," he said, "is a matter for the consideration of the Chief
"It is so unprecedented, you know," he added apologetically.
The man at the Chief Office hemmed and hawed. "We make it a rule,"
he explained, "to give no information concerning our clients."
"But in this case," I urged, "it is the client who requests you to
give the information concerning himself."
Again he hemmed and hawed.
"Of course," I hastily anticipated, "I know it is unprecedented,
"As I was about to remark," he went on steadily, "it is
unprecedented, and I don't think we can do anything for you."
However, I departed with the address of a detective who lived in the
East End, and took my way to the American consul-general. And here,
at last, I found a man with whom I could "do business." There was
no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank
amazement. In one minute I explained myself and my project, which
he accepted as a matter of course. In the second minute he asked my
age, height, and weight, and looked me over. And in the third
minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said: "All right, Jack.
I'll remember you and keep track."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Having burnt my ships behind me, I was
now free to plunge into that human wilderness of which nobody seemed
to know anything. But at once I encountered a new difficulty in the
shape of my cabby, a grey-whiskered and eminently decorous personage
who had imperturbably driven me for several hours about the "City."
"Drive me down to the East End," I ordered, taking my seat.
"Where, sir?" he demanded with frank surprise.
"To the East End, anywhere. Go on."
The hansom pursued an aimless way for several minutes, then came to
a puzzled stop. The aperture above my head was uncovered, and the
cabman peered down perplexedly at me.
"I say," he said, "wot plyce yer wanter go?"
"East End," I repeated. "Nowhere in particular. Just drive me
"But wot's the haddress, sir?"
"See here!" I thundered. "Drive me down to the East End, and at
It was evident that he did not understand, but he withdrew his head,
and grumblingly started his horse.
Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject
poverty, while five minutes' walk from almost any point will bring
one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one
unending slum. The streets were filled with a new and different
race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden
appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor,
and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks
and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the
air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a
market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage
thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while
little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of
fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid
corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which
they devoured on the spot.
Not a hansom did I meet with in all my drive, while mine was like an
apparition from another and better world, the way the children ran
after it and alongside. And as far as I could see were the solid
walls of brick, the slimy pavements, and the screaming streets; and
for the first time in my life the fear of the crowd smote me. It
was like the fear of the sea; and the miserable multitudes, street
upon street, seemed so many waves of a vast and malodorous sea,
lapping about me and threatening to well up and over me.
"Stepney, sir; Stepney Station," the cabby called down.
I looked about. It was really a railroad station, and he had driven
desperately to it as the one familiar spot he had ever heard of in
all that wilderness.
"Well," I said.
He spluttered unintelligibly, shook his head, and looked very
miserable. "I'm a strynger 'ere," he managed to articulate. "An'
if yer don't want Stepney Station, I'm blessed if I know wotcher do
"I'll tell you what I want," I said. "You drive along and keep your
eye out for a shop where old clothes are sold. Now, when you see
such a shop, drive right on till you turn the corner, then stop and
let me out."
I could see that he was growing dubious of his fare, but not long
afterwards he pulled up to the curb and informed me that an old-
clothes shop was to be found a bit of the way back.
"Won'tcher py me?" he pleaded. "There's seven an' six owin' me."
"Yes," I laughed, "and it would be the last I'd see of you."
"Lord lumme, but it'll be the last I see of you if yer don't py me,"
But a crowd of ragged onlookers had already gathered around the cab,
and I laughed again and walked back to the old-clothes shop.
Here the chief difficulty was in making the shopman understand that
I really and truly wanted old clothes. But after fruitless attempts
to press upon me new and impossible coats and trousers, he began to
bring to light heaps of old ones, looking mysterious the while and
hinting darkly. This he did with the palpable intention of letting
me know that he had "piped my lay," in order to bulldose me, through
fear of exposure, into paying heavily for my purchases. A man in
trouble, or a high-class criminal from across the water, was what he
took my measure for--in either case, a person anxious to avoid the
But I disputed with him over the outrageous difference between
prices and values, till I quite disabused him of the notion, and he
settled down to drive a hard bargain with a hard customer. In the
end I selected a pair of stout though well-worn trousers, a frayed
jacket with one remaining button, a pair of brogans which had
plainly seen service where coal was shovelled, a thin leather belt,
and a very dirty cloth cap. My underclothing and socks, however,
were new and warm, but of the sort that any American waif, down in
his luck, could acquire in the ordinary course of events.
"I must sy yer a sharp 'un," he said, with counterfeit admiration,
as I handed over the ten shillings finally agreed upon for the
outfit. "Blimey, if you ain't ben up an' down Petticut Lane afore
now. Yer trouseys is wuth five bob to hany man, an' a docker 'ud
give two an' six for the shoes, to sy nothin' of the coat an' cap
an' new stoker's singlet an' hother things."
"How much will you give me for them?" I demanded suddenly. "I paid
you ten bob for the lot, and I'll sell them back to you, right now,
for eight! Come, it's a go!"
But he grinned and shook his head, and though I had made a good
bargain, I was unpleasantly aware that he had made a better one.
I found the cabby and a policeman with their heads together, but the
latter, after looking me over sharply, and particularly scrutinizing
the bundle under my arm, turned away and left the cabby to wax
mutinous by himself. And not a step would he budge till I paid him
the seven shillings and sixpence owing him. Whereupon he was
willing to drive me to the ends of the earth, apologising profusely
for his insistence, and explaining that one ran across queer
customers in London Town.
But he drove me only to Highbury Vale, in North London, where my
luggage was waiting for me. Here, next day, I took off my shoes
(not without regret for their lightness and comfort), and my soft,
grey travelling suit, and, in fact, all my clothing; and proceeded
to array myself in the clothes of the other and unimaginable men,
who must have been indeed unfortunate to have had to part with such
rags for the pitiable sums obtainable from a dealer.
Inside my stoker's singlet, in the armpit, I sewed a gold sovereign
(an emergency sum certainly of modest proportions); and inside my
stoker's singlet I put myself. And then I sat down and moralised
upon the fair years and fat, which had made my skin soft and brought
the nerves close to the surface; for the singlet was rough and raspy
as a hair shirt, and I am confident that the most rigorous of
ascetics suffer no more than I did in the ensuing twenty-four hours.
The remainder of my costume was fairly easy to put on, though the
brogans, or brogues, were quite a problem. As stiff and hard as if
made of wood, it was only after a prolonged pounding of the uppers
with my fists that I was able to get my feet into them at all.
Then, with a few shillings, a knife, a handkerchief, and some brown
papers and flake tobacco stowed away in my pockets, I thumped down
the stairs and said good-bye to my foreboding friends. As I paused
out of the door, the "help," a comely middle-aged woman, could not
conquer a grin that twisted her lips and separated them till the
throat, out of involuntary sympathy, made the uncouth animal noises
we are wont to designate as "laughter."
No sooner was I out on the streets than I was impressed by the
difference in status effected by my clothes. All servility vanished
from the demeanour of the common people with whom I came in contact.
Presto! in the twinkling of an eye, so to say, I had become one of
them. My frayed and out-at-elbows jacket was the badge and
advertisement of my class, which was their class. It made me of
like kind, and in place of the fawning and too respectful attention
I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comradeship. The
man in corduroy and dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as
"sir" or "governor." It was "mate" now--and a fine and hearty word,
with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness, which the other term
does not possess. Governor! It smacks of mastery, and power, and
high authority--the tribute of the man who is under to the man on
top, delivered in the hope that he will let up a bit and ease his
weight, which is another way of saying that it is an appeal for
This brings me to a delight I experienced in my rags and tatters
which is denied the average American abroad. The European traveller
from the States, who is not a Croesus, speedily finds himself
reduced to a chronic state of self-conscious sordidness by the
hordes of cringing robbers who clutter his steps from dawn till
dark, and deplete his pocket-book in a way that puts compound
interest to the blush.
In my rags and tatters I escaped the pestilence of tipping, and
encountered men on a basis of equality. Nay, before the day was out
I turned the tables, and said, most gratefully, "Thank you, sir," to
a gentleman whose horse I held, and who dropped a penny into my
Other changes I discovered were wrought in my condition by my new
garb. In crossing crowded thoroughfares I found I had to be, if
anything, more lively in avoiding vehicles, and it was strikingly
impressed upon me that my life had cheapened in direct ratio with my
clothes. When before I inquired the way of a policeman, I was
usually asked, "Bus or 'ansom, sir?" But now the query became,
"Walk or ride?" Also, at the railway stations, a third-class ticket
was now shoved out to me as a matter of course.
But there was compensation for it all. For the first time I met the
English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they
were. When loungers and workmen, at street corners and in public-
houses, talked with me, they talked as one man to another, and they
talked as natural men should talk, without the least idea of getting
anything out of me for what they talked or the way they talked.
And when at last I made into the East End, I was gratified to find
that the fear of the crowd no longer haunted me. I had become a
part of it. The vast and malodorous sea had welled up and over me,
or I had slipped gently into it, and there was nothing fearsome
about it--with the one exception of the stoker's singlet.
CHAPTER II--JOHNNY UPRIGHT
I shall not give you the address of Johnny Upright. Let it suffice
that he lives in the most respectable street in the East End--a
street that would be considered very mean in America, but a
veritable oasis in the desert of East London. It is surrounded on
every side by close-packed squalor and streets jammed by a young and
vile and dirty generation; but its own pavements are comparatively
bare of the children who have no other place to play, while it has
an air of desertion, so few are the people that come and go.
Each house in this street, as in all the streets, is shoulder to
shoulder with its neighbours. To each house there is but one
entrance, the front door; and each house is about eighteen feet
wide, with a bit of a brick-walled yard behind, where, when it is
not raining, one may look at a slate-coloured sky. But it must be
understood that this is East End opulence we are now considering.
Some of the people in this street are even so well-to-do as to keep
a "slavey." Johnny Upright keeps one, as I well know, she being my
first acquaintance in this particular portion of the world.
To Johnny Upright's house I came, and to the door came the "slavey."
Now, mark you, her position in life was pitiable and contemptible,
but it was with pity and contempt that she looked at me. She
evinced a plain desire that our conversation should be short. It
was Sunday, and Johnny Upright was not at home, and that was all
there was to it. But I lingered, discussing whether or not it was
all there was to it, till Mrs. Johnny Upright was attracted to the
door, where she scolded the girl for not having closed it before
turning her attention to me.
No, Mr. Johnny Upright was not at home, and further, he saw nobody
on Sunday. It is too bad, said I. Was I looking for work? No,
quite the contrary; in fact, I had come to see Johnny Upright on
business which might be profitable to him.
A change came over the face of things at once. The gentleman in
question was at church, but would be home in an hour or thereabouts,
when no doubt he could be seen.
Would I kindly step in?--no, the lady did not ask me, though I
fished for an invitation by stating that I would go down to the
corner and wait in a public-house. And down to the corner I went,
but, it being church time, the "pub" was closed. A miserable
drizzle was falling, and, in lieu of better, I took a seat on a
neighbourly doorstep and waited.
And here to the doorstep came the "slavey," very frowzy and very
perplexed, to tell me that the missus would let me come back and
wait in the kitchen.
"So many people come 'ere lookin' for work," Mrs. Johnny Upright
apologetically explained. "So I 'ope you won't feel bad the way I
"Not at all, not at all," I replied in my grandest manner, for the
nonce investing my rags with dignity. "I quite understand, I assure
you. I suppose people looking for work almost worry you to death?"
"That they do," she answered, with an eloquent and expressive
glance; and thereupon ushered me into, not the kitchen, but the
dining room--a favour, I took it, in recompense for my grand manner.
This dining-room, on the same floor as the kitchen, was about four
feet below the level of the ground, and so dark (it was midday) that
I had to wait a space for my eyes to adjust themselves to the gloom.
Dirty light filtered in through a window, the top of which was on a
level with a sidewalk, and in this light I found that I was able to
read newspaper print.
And here, while waiting the coming of Johnny Upright, let me explain
my errand. While living, eating, and sleeping with the people of
the East End, it was my intention to have a port of refuge, not too
far distant, into which could run now and again to assure myself
that good clothes and cleanliness still existed. Also in such port
I could receive my mail, work up my notes, and sally forth
occasionally in changed garb to civilisation.
But this involved a dilemma. A lodging where my property would be
safe implied a landlady apt to be suspicious of a gentleman leading
a double life; while a landlady who would not bother her head over
the double life of her lodgers would imply lodgings where property
was unsafe. To avoid the dilemma was what had brought me to Johnny
Upright. A detective of thirty-odd years' continuous service in the
East End, known far and wide by a name given him by a convicted
felon in the dock, he was just the man to find me an honest
landlady, and make her rest easy concerning the strange comings and
goings of which I might be guilty.
His two daughters beat him home from church--and pretty girls they
were in their Sunday dresses; withal it was the certain weak and
delicate prettiness which characterises the Cockney lasses, a
prettiness which is no more than a promise with no grip on time, and
doomed to fade quickly away like the colour from a sunset sky.
They looked me over with frank curiosity, as though I were some sort
of a strange animal, and then ignored me utterly for the rest of my
wait. Then Johnny Upright himself arrived, and I was summoned
upstairs to confer with him.
"Speak loud," he interrupted my opening words. "I've got a bad
cold, and I can't hear well."
Shades of Old Sleuth and Sherlock Holmes! I wondered as to where
the assistant was located whose duty it was to take down whatever
information I might loudly vouchsafe. And to this day, much as I
have seen of Johnny Upright and much as I have puzzled over the
incident, I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to
whether or not he had a cold, or had an assistant planted in the
other room. But of one thing I am sure: though I gave Johnny
Upright the facts concerning myself and project, he withheld
judgment till next day, when I dodged into his street conventionally
garbed and in a hansom. Then his greeting was cordial enough, and I
went down into the dining-room to join the family at tea.
"We are humble here," he said, "not given to the flesh, and you must
take us for what we are, in our humble way."
The girls were flushed and embarrassed at greeting me, while he did
not make it any the easier for them.
"Ha! ha!" he roared heartily, slapping the table with his open hand
till the dishes rang. "The girls thought yesterday you had come to
ask for a piece of bread! Ha! ha! ho! ho! ho!"
This they indignantly denied, with snapping eyes and guilty red
cheeks, as though it were an essential of true refinement to be able
to discern under his rags a man who had no need to go ragged.
And then, while I ate bread and marmalade, proceeded a play at cross
purposes, the daughters deeming it an insult to me that I should
have been mistaken for a beggar, and the father considering it as
the highest compliment to my cleverness to succeed in being so
mistaken. All of which I enjoyed, and the bread, the marmalade, and
the tea, till the time came for Johnny Upright to find me a lodging,
which he did, not half-a-dozen doors away, in his own respectable
and opulent street, in a house as like to his own as a pea to its
CHAPTER III--MY LODGING AND SOME OTHERS
From an East London standpoint, the room I rented for six shillings,
or a dollar and a half, per week, was a most comfortable affair.
From the American standpoint, on the other hand, it was rudely
furnished, uncomfortable, and small. By the time I had added an
ordinary typewriter table to its scanty furnishing, I was hard put
to turn around; at the best, I managed to navigate it by a sort of
vermicular progression requiring great dexterity and presence of
Having settled myself, or my property rather, I put on my knockabout
clothes and went out for a walk. Lodgings being fresh in my mind, I
began to look them up, bearing in mind the hypothesis that I was a
poor young man with a wife and large family.
My first discovery was that empty houses were few and far between--
so far between, in fact, that though I walked miles in irregular
circles over a large area, I still remained between. Not one empty
house could I find--a conclusive proof that the district was
It being plain that as a poor young man with a family I could rent
no houses at all in this most undesirable region, I next looked for
rooms, unfurnished rooms, in which I could store my wife and babies
and chattels. There were not many, but I found them, usually in the
singular, for one appears to be considered sufficient for a poor
man's family in which to cook and eat and sleep. When I asked for
two rooms, the sublettees looked at me very much in the manner, I
imagine, that a certain personage looked at Oliver Twist when he
asked for more.
Not only was one room deemed sufficient for a poor man and his
family, but I learned that many families, occupying single rooms,
had so much space to spare as to be able to take in a lodger or two.
When such rooms can be rented for from three to six shillings per
week, it is a fair conclusion that a lodger with references should
obtain floor space for, say, from eightpence to a shilling. He may
even be able to board with the sublettees for a few shillings more.
This, however, I failed to inquire into--a reprehensible error on my
part, considering that I was working on the basis of a hypothetical
Not only did the houses I investigated have no bath-tubs, but I
learned that there were no bath-tubs in all the thousands of houses
I had seen. Under the circumstances, with my wife and babies and a
couple of lodgers suffering from the too great spaciousness of one
room, taking a bath in a tin wash-basin would be an unfeasible
undertaking. But, it seems, the compensation comes in with the
saving of soap, so all's well, and God's still in heaven.
However, I rented no rooms, but returned to my own Johnny Upright's
street. What with my wife, and babies, and lodgers, and the various
cubby-holes into which I had fitted them, my mind's eye had become
narrow-angled, and I could not quite take in all of my own room at
once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the
room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my
landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable,
dispelled my doubts.
"Oh yes, sir," she said, in reply to a question. "This street is
the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten
years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others
have driven our kind out. Those in this street are the only ones
left. It's shocking, sir!"
And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the
rental value of a neighbourhood went up, while its tone went down.
"You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the
others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and
lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house,
where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than
we can afford. It IS shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few
years ago all this neighbourhood was just as nice as it could be."
I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the
English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being
slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which
the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank,
factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor
folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave,
saturating and degrading neighbourhood by neighbourhood, driving the
better class of workers before them to pioneer, on the rim of the
city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely
in the second and third.
It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright's street must
go. He realises it himself.
"In a couple of years," he says, "my lease expires. My landlord is
one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses
here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or
any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are
concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a
sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is,
adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are,
and Johnny Upright's gone!"
And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair
daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts flitting eastward
through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.
But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on
the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little
managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semi-
detached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and
breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride, and throw out
their chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have
escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo!
down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his
heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon,
villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black
night of London settles down in a greasy pall.
CHAPTER IV--A MAN AND THE ABYSS
"I say, can you let a lodging?"
These words I discharged carelessly over my shoulder at a stout and
elderly woman, of whose fare I was partaking in a greasy coffee-
house down near the Pool and not very far from Limehouse.
"Oh yus," she answered shortly, my appearance possibly not
approximating the standard of affluence required by her house.
I said no more, consuming my rasher of bacon and pint of sickly tea
in silence. Nor did she take further interest in me till I came to
pay my reckoning (fourpence), when I pulled all of ten shillings out
of my pocket. The expected result was produced.
"Yus, sir," she at once volunteered; "I 'ave nice lodgin's you'd
likely tyke a fancy to. Back from a voyage, sir?"
"How much for a room?" I inquired, ignoring her curiosity.
She looked me up and down with frank surprise. "I don't let rooms,
not to my reg'lar lodgers, much less casuals."
"Then I'll have to look along a bit," I said, with marked
But the sight of my ten shillings had made her keen. "I can let you
have a nice bed in with two hother men," she urged. "Good,
respectable men, an' steady."
"But I don't want to sleep with two other men," I objected.
"You don't 'ave to. There's three beds in the room, an' hit's not a
very small room."
"How much?" I demanded.
"'Arf a crown a week, two an' six, to a regular lodger. You'll
fancy the men, I'm sure. One works in the ware'ouse, an' 'e's been
with me two years now. An' the hother's bin with me six--six years,
sir, an' two months comin' nex' Saturday. 'E's a scene-shifter,"
she went on. "A steady, respectable man, never missin' a night's
work in the time 'e's bin with me. An' 'e likes the 'ouse; 'e says
as it's the best 'e can do in the w'y of lodgin's. I board 'im, an'
the hother lodgers too."
"I suppose he's saving money right along," I insinuated innocently.
"Bless you, no! Nor can 'e do as well helsewhere with 'is money."
And I thought of my own spacious West, with room under its sky and
unlimited air for a thousand Londons; and here was this man, a
steady and reliable man, never missing a night's work, frugal and
honest, lodging in one room with two other men, paying two dollars
and a half per month for it, and out of his experience adjudging it
to be the best he could do! And here was I, on the strength of the
ten shillings in my pocket, able to enter in with my rags and take
up my bed with him. The human soul is a lonely thing, but it must
be very lonely sometimes when there are three beds to a room, and
casuals with ten shillings are admitted.
"How long have you been here?" I asked.
"Thirteen years, sir; an' don't you think you'll fancy the lodgin'?"
The while she talked she was shuffling ponderously about the small
kitchen in which she cooked the food for her lodgers who were also
boarders. When I first entered, she had been hard at work, nor had
she let up once throughout the conversation. Undoubtedly she was a
busy woman. "Up at half-past five," "to bed the last thing at
night," "workin' fit ter drop," thirteen years of it, and for
reward, grey hairs, frowzy clothes, stooped shoulders, slatternly
figure, unending toil in a foul and noisome coffee-house that faced
on an alley ten feet between the walls, and a waterside environment
that was ugly and sickening, to say the least.
"You'll be hin hagain to 'ave a look?" she questioned wistfully, as
I went out of the door.
And as I turned and looked at her, I realized to the full the deeper
truth underlying that very wise old maxim: "Virtue is its own
I went back to her. "Have you ever taken a vacation?" I asked.
"A trip to the country for a couple of days, fresh air, a day off,
you know, a rest."
"Lor' lumme!" she laughed, for the first time stopping from her
work. "A vycytion, eh? for the likes o' me? Just fancy, now!--Mind
yer feet!"--this last sharply, and to me, as I stumbled over the
Down near the West India Dock I came upon a young fellow staring
disconsolately at the muddy water. A fireman's cap was pulled down
across his eyes, and the fit and sag of his clothes whispered
unmistakably of the sea.
"Hello, mate," I greeted him, sparring for a beginning. "Can you
tell me the way to Wapping?"
"Worked yer way over on a cattle boat?" he countered, fixing my
nationality on the instant.
And thereupon we entered upon a talk that extended itself to a
public-house and a couple of pints of "arf an' arf." This led to
closer intimacy, so that when I brought to light all of a shilling's
worth of coppers (ostensibly my all), and put aside sixpence for a
bed, and sixpence for more arf an' arf, he generously proposed that
we drink up the whole shilling.
"My mate, 'e cut up rough las' night," he explained. "An' the
bobbies got 'm, so you can bunk in wi' me. Wotcher say?"
I said yes, and by the time we had soaked ourselves in a whole
shilling's worth of beer, and slept the night on a miserable bed in
a miserable den, I knew him pretty fairly for what he was. And that
in one respect he was representative of a large body of the lower-
class London workman, my later experience substantiates.
He was London-born, his father a fireman and a drinker before him.
As a child, his home was the streets and the docks. He had never
learned to read, and had never felt the need for it--a vain and
useless accomplishment, he held, at least for a man of his station
He had had a mother and numerous squalling brothers and sisters, all
crammed into a couple of rooms and living on poorer and less regular
food than he could ordinarily rustle for himself. In fact, he never
went home except at periods when he was unfortunate in procuring his
own food. Petty pilfering and begging along the streets and docks,
a trip or two to sea as mess-boy, a few trips more as coal-trimmer,
and then a full-fledged fireman, he had reached the top of his life.
And in the course of this he had also hammered out a philosophy of
life, an ugly and repulsive philosophy, but withal a very logical
and sensible one from his point of view. When I asked him what he
lived for, he immediately answered, "Booze." A voyage to sea (for a
man must live and get the wherewithal), and then the paying off and
the big drunk at the end. After that, haphazard little drunks,
sponged in the "pubs" from mates with a few coppers left, like
myself, and when sponging was played out another trip to sea and a
repetition of the beastly cycle.
"But women," I suggested, when he had finished proclaiming booze the
sole end of existence.
"Wimmen!" He thumped his pot upon the bar and orated eloquently.
"Wimmen is a thing my edication 'as learnt me t' let alone. It
don't pay, matey; it don't pay. Wot's a man like me want o' wimmen,
eh? jest you tell me. There was my mar, she was enough, a-bangin'
the kids about an' makin' the ole man mis'rable when 'e come 'ome,
w'ich was seldom, I grant. An' fer w'y? Becos o' mar! She didn't
make 'is 'ome 'appy, that was w'y. Then, there's the other wimmen,
'ow do they treat a pore stoker with a few shillin's in 'is
trouseys? A good drunk is wot 'e's got in 'is pockits, a good long
drunk, an' the wimmen skin 'im out of his money so quick 'e ain't
'ad 'ardly a glass. I know. I've 'ad my fling, an' I know wot's
wot. An' I tell you, where's wimmen is trouble--screechin' an'
carryin' on, fightin', cuttin', bobbies, magistrates, an' a month's
'ard labour back of it all, an' no pay-day when you come out."
"But a wife and children," I insisted. "A home of your own, and all
that. Think of it, back from a voyage, little children climbing on
your knee, and the wife happy and smiling, and a kiss for you when
she lays the table, and a kiss all round from the babies when they
go to bed, and the kettle singing and the long talk afterwards of
where you've been and what you've seen, and of her and all the
little happenings at home while you've been away, and--"
"Garn!" he cried, with a playful shove of his fist on my shoulder.
"Wot's yer game, eh? A missus kissin' an' kids clim'in', an' kettle
singin', all on four poun' ten a month w'en you 'ave a ship, an'
four nothin' w'en you 'aven't. I'll tell you wot I'd get on four
poun' ten--a missus rowin', kids squallin', no coal t' make the
kettle sing, an' the kettle up the spout, that's wot I'd get.
Enough t' make a bloke bloomin' well glad to be back t' sea. A
missus! Wot for? T' make you mis'rable? Kids? Jest take my
counsel, matey, an' don't 'ave 'em. Look at me! I can 'ave my beer
w'en I like, an' no blessed missus an' kids a-crying for bread. I'm
'appy, I am, with my beer an' mates like you, an' a good ship
comin', an' another trip to sea. So I say, let's 'ave another pint.
Arf an' arf's good enough for me."
Without going further with the speech of this young fellow of two-
and-twenty, I think I have sufficiently indicated his philosophy of
life and the underlying economic reason for it. Home life he had
never known. The word "home" aroused nothing but unpleasant
associations. In the low wages of his father, and of other men in
the same walk in life, he found sufficient reason for branding wife
and children as encumbrances and causes of masculine misery. An
unconscious hedonist, utterly unmoral and materialistic, he sought
the greatest possible happiness for himself, and found it in drink.
A young sot; a premature wreck; physical inability to do a stoker's
work; the gutter or the workhouse; and the end--he saw it all as
clearly as I, but it held no terrors for him. From the moment of
his birth, all the forces of his environment had tended to harden
him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a
callousness and unconcern I could not shake.
And yet he was not a bad man. He was not inherently vicious and
brutal. He had normal mentality, and a more than average physique.
His eyes were blue and round, shaded by long lashes, and wide apart.
And there was a laugh in them, and a fund of humour behind. The
brow and general features were good, the mouth and lips sweet,
though already developing a harsh twist. The chin was weak, but not
too weak; I have seen men sitting in the high places with weaker.
His head was shapely, and so gracefully was it poised upon a perfect
neck that I was not surprised by his body that night when he
stripped for bed. I have seen many men strip, in gymnasium and
training quarters, men of good blood and upbringing, but I have
never seen one who stripped to better advantage than this young sot
of two-and-twenty, this young god doomed to rack and ruin in four or
five short years, and to pass hence without posterity to receive the
splendid heritage it was his to bequeath.
It seemed sacrilege to waste such life, and yet I was forced to
confess that he was right in not marrying on four pounds ten in
London Town. Just as the scene-shifter was happier in making both
ends meet in a room shared with two other men, than he would have
been had he packed a feeble family along with a couple of men into a
cheaper room, and failed in making both ends meet.
And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it
is criminal for the people of the Abyss to marry. They are the
stones by the builder rejected. There is no place for them, in the
social fabric, while all the forces of society drive them downward
till they perish. At the bottom of the Abyss they are feeble,
besotted, and imbecile. If they reproduce, the life is so cheap
that perforce it perishes of itself. The work of the world goes on
above them, and they do not care to take part in it, nor are they
able. Moreover, the work of the world does not need them. There
are plenty, far fitter than they, clinging to the steep slope above,
and struggling frantically to slide no more.
In short, the London Abyss is a vast shambles. Year by year, and
decade after decade, rural England pours in a flood of vigorous
strong life, that not only does not renew itself, but perishes by
the third generation. Competent authorities aver that the London
workman whose parents and grand-parents were born in London is so
remarkable a specimen that he is rarely found.
Mr. A. C. Pigou has said that the aged poor, and the residuum which
compose the "submerged tenth," constitute 71 per cent, of the
population of London. Which is to say that last year, and
yesterday, and to-day, at this very moment, 450,000 of these
creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called
"London." As to how they die, I shall take an instance from this
Yesterday Dr. Wynn Westcott held an inquest at Shoreditch,
respecting the death of Elizabeth Crews, aged 77 years, of 32 East
Street, Holborn, who died on Wednesday last. Alice Mathieson stated
that she was landlady of the house where deceased lived. Witness
last saw her alive on the previous Monday. She lived quite alone.
Mr. Francis Birch, relieving officer for the Holborn district,
stated that deceased had occupied the room in question for thirty-
five years. When witness was called, on the 1st, he found the old
woman in a terrible state, and the ambulance and coachman had to be
disinfected after the removal. Dr. Chase Fennell said death was due
to blood-poisoning from bed-sores, due to self-neglect and filthy
surroundings, and the jury returned a verdict to that effect.
The most startling thing about this little incident of a woman's
death is the smug complacency with which the officials looked upon
it and rendered judgment. That an old woman of seventy-seven years
of age should die of SELF-NEGLECT is the most optimistic way
possible of looking at it. It was the old dead woman's fault that
she died, and having located the responsibility, society goes
contentedly on about its own affairs.
Of the "submerged tenth" Mr. Pigou has said: "Either through lack
of bodily strength, or of intelligence, or of fibre, or of all
three, they are inefficient or unwilling workers, and consequently
unable to support themselves . . . They are often so degraded in
intellect as to be incapable of distinguishing their right from
their left hand, or of recognising the numbers of their own houses;
their bodies are feeble and without stamina, their affections are
warped, and they scarcely know what family life means."
Four hundred and fifty thousand is a whole lot of people. The young
fireman was only one, and it took him some time to say his little
say. I should not like to hear them all talk at once. I wonder if
God hears them?
CHAPTER V--THOSE ON THE EDGE
My first impression of East London was naturally a general one.
Later the details began to appear, and here and there in the chaos
of misery I found little spots where a fair measure of happiness
reigned--sometimes whole rows of houses in little out-of-the-way
streets, where artisans dwell and where a rude sort of family life
obtains. In the evenings the men can be seen at the doors, pipes in
their mouths and children on their knees, wives gossiping, and
laughter and fun going on. The content of these people is
manifestly great, for, relative to the wretchedness that encompasses
them, they are well off.
But at the best, it is a dull, animal happiness, the content of the
full belly. The dominant note of their lives is materialistic.
They are stupid and heavy, without imagination. The Abyss seems to
exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and
deadens them. Religion passes them by. The Unseen holds for them
neither terror nor delight. They are unaware of the Unseen; and the
full belly and the evening pipe, with their regular "arf an' arf,"
is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence.
This would not be so bad if it were all; but it is not all. The
satisfied torpor in which they are sunk is the deadly inertia that
precedes dissolution. There is no progress, and with them not to
progress is to fall back and into the Abyss. In their own lives
they may only start to fall, leaving the fall to be completed by
their children and their children's children. Man always gets less
than he demands from life; and so little do they demand, that the
less than little they get cannot save them.
At the best, city life is an unnatural life for the human; but the
city life of London is so utterly unnatural that the average workman
or workwoman cannot stand it. Mind and body are sapped by the
undermining influences ceaselessly at work. Moral and physical
stamina are broken, and the good workman, fresh from the soil,
becomes in the first city generation a poor workman; and by the
second city generation, devoid of push and go and initiative, and
actually unable physically to perform the labour his father did, he
is well on the way to the shambles at the bottom of the Abyss.
If nothing else, the air he breathes, and from which he never
escapes, is sufficient to weaken him mentally and physically, so
that he becomes unable to compete with the fresh virile life from
the country hastening on to London Town to destroy and be destroyed.
Leaving out the disease germs that fill the air of the East End,
consider but the one item of smoke. Sir William Thiselton-Dyer,
curator of Kew Gardens, has been studying smoke deposits on
vegetation, and, according to his calculations, no less than six
tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are
deposited every week on every quarter of a square mile in and about
London. This is equivalent to twenty-four tons per week to the
square mile, or 1248 tons per year to the square mile. From the
cornice below the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral was recently taken a
solid deposit of crystallised sulphate of lime. This deposit had
been formed by the action of the sulphuric acid in the atmosphere
upon the carbonate of lime in the stone. And this sulphuric acid in
the atmosphere is constantly being breathed by the London workmen
through all the days and nights of their lives.
It is incontrovertible that the children grow up into rotten adults,
without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless
breed, that crumples up and goes down in the brute struggle for life
with the invading hordes from the country. The railway men,
carriers, omnibus drivers, corn and timber porters, and all those
who require physical stamina, are largely drawn from the country;
while in the Metropolitan Police there are, roughly, 12,000 country-
born as against 3000 London-born.
So one is forced to conclude that the Abyss is literally a huge man-
killing machine, and when I pass along the little out-of-the-way
streets with the full-bellied artisans at the doors, I am aware of a
greater sorrow for them than for the 450,000 lost and hopeless
wretches dying at the bottom of the pit. They, at least, are dying,
that is the point; while these have yet to go through the slow and
preliminary pangs extending through two and even three generations.
And yet the quality of the life is good. All human potentialities
are in it. Given proper conditions, it could live through the
centuries, and great men, heroes and masters, spring from it and
make the world better by having lived.
I talked with a woman who was representative of that type which has
been jerked out of its little out-of-the-way streets and has started
on the fatal fall to the bottom. Her husband was a fitter and a
member of the Engineers' Union. That he was a poor engineer was
evidenced by his inability to get regular employment. He did not
have the energy and enterprise necessary to obtain or hold a steady
The pair had two daughters, and the four of them lived in a couple
of holes, called "rooms" by courtesy, for which they paid seven
shillings per week. They possessed no stove, managing their cooking
on a single gas-ring in the fireplace. Not being persons of
property, they were unable to obtain an unlimited supply of gas; but
a clever machine had been installed for their benefit. By dropping
a penny in the slot, the gas was forthcoming, and when a penny's
worth had forthcome the supply was automatically shut off. "A penny
gawn in no time," she explained, "an' the cookin' not arf done!"
Incipient starvation had been their portion for years. Month in and
month out, they had arisen from the table able and willing to eat
more. And when once on the downward slope, chronic innutrition is
an important factor in sapping vitality and hastening the descent.
Yet this woman was a hard worker. From 4.30 in the morning till the
last light at night, she said, she had toiled at making cloth dress-
skirts, lined up and with two flounces, for seven shillings a dozen.
Cloth dress-skirts, mark you, lined up with two flounces, for seven
shillings a dozen! This is equal to $1.75 per dozen, or 14.75 cents
The husband, in order to obtain employment, had to belong to the
union, which collected one shilling and sixpence from him each week.
Also, when strikes were afoot and he chanced to be working, he had
at times been compelled to pay as high as seventeen shillings into
the union's coffers for the relief fund.
One daughter, the elder, had worked as green hand for a dressmaker,
for one shilling and sixpence per week--37.5 cents per week, or a
fraction over 5 cents per day. However, when the slack season came
she was discharged, though she had been taken on at such low pay
with the understanding that she was to learn the trade and work up.
After that she had been employed in a bicycle store for three years,
for which she received five shillings per week, walking two miles to
her work, and two back, and being fined for tardiness.
As far as the man and woman were concerned, the game was played.
They had lost handhold and foothold, and were falling into the pit.
But what of the daughters? Living like swine, enfeebled by chronic
innutrition, being sapped mentally, morally, and physically, what
chance have they to crawl up and out of the Abyss into which they
were born falling?
As I write this, and for an hour past, the air has been made hideous
by a free-for-all, rough-and-tumble fight going on in the yard that
is back to back with my yard. When the first sounds reached me I
took it for the barking and snarling of dogs, and some minutes were
required to convince me that human beings, and women at that, could
produce such a fearful clamour.
Drunken women fighting! It is not nice to think of; it is far worse
to listen to. Something like this it runs -
Incoherent babble, shrieked at the top of the lungs of several
women; a lull, in which is heard a child crying and a young girl's
voice pleading tearfully; a woman's voice rises, harsh and grating,
"You 'it me! Jest you 'it me!" then, swat! challenge accepted and
fight rages afresh.
The back windows of the houses commanding the scene are lined with
enthusiastic spectators, and the sound of blows, and of oaths that
make one's blood run cold, are borne to my ears. Happily, I cannot
see the combatants.
A lull; "You let that child alone!" child, evidently of few years,
screaming in downright terror. "Awright," repeated insistently and
at top pitch twenty times straight running; "you'll git this rock on
the 'ead!" and then rock evidently on the head from the shriek that
A lull; apparently one combatant temporarily disabled and being
resuscitated; child's voice audible again, but now sunk to a lower
note of terror and growing exhaustion.
Voices begin to go up the scale, something like this:-
Sufficient affirmation on both sides, conflict again precipitated.
One combatant gets overwhelming advantage, and follows it up from
the way the other combatant screams bloody murder. Bloody murder
gurgles and dies out, undoubtedly throttled by a strangle hold.
Entrance of new voices; a flank attack; strangle hold suddenly
broken from the way bloody murder goes up half an octave higher than
before; general hullaballoo, everybody fighting.
Lull; new voice, young girl's, "I'm goin' ter tyke my mother's
part;" dialogue, repeated about five times, "I'll do as I like,
blankety, blank, blank!" "I'd like ter see yer, blankety, blank,
blank!" renewed conflict, mothers, daughters, everybody, during
which my landlady calls her young daughter in from the back steps,
while I wonder what will be the effect of all that she has heard
upon her moral fibre.
CHAPTER VI--FRYING-PAN ALLEY AND A GLIMPSE OF INFERNO
Three of us walked down Mile End Road, and one was a hero. He was a
slender lad of nineteen, so slight and frail, in fact, that, like
Fra Lippo Lippi, a puff of wind might double him up and turn him
over. He was a burning young socialist, in the first throes of
enthusiasm and ripe for martyrdom. As platform speaker or chairman
he had taken an active and dangerous part in the many indoor and
outdoor pro-Boer meetings which have vexed the serenity of Merry
England these several years back. Little items he had been
imparting to me as he walked along; of being mobbed in parks and on
tram-cars; of climbing on the platform to lead the forlorn hope,
when brother speaker after brother speaker had been dragged down by
the angry crowd and cruelly beaten; of a siege in a church, where he
and three others had taken sanctuary, and where, amid flying
missiles and the crashing of stained glass, they had fought off the
mob till rescued by platoons of constables; of pitched and giddy
battles on stairways, galleries, and balconies; of smashed windows,
collapsed stairways, wrecked lecture halls, and broken heads and
bones--and then, with a regretful sigh, he looked at me and said:
"How I envy you big, strong men! I'm such a little mite I can't do
much when it comes to fighting."
And I, walking head and shoulders above my two companions,
remembered my own husky West, and the stalwart men it had been my
custom, in turn, to envy there. Also, as I looked at the mite of a
youth with the heart of a lion, I thought, this is the type that on
occasion rears barricades and shows the world that men have not
forgotten how to die.
But up spoke my other companion, a man of twenty-eight, who eked out
a precarious existence in a sweating den.
"I'm a 'earty man, I am,' he announced. "Not like the other chaps
at my shop, I ain't. They consider me a fine specimen of manhood.
W'y, d' ye know, I weigh ten stone!"
I was ashamed to tell him that I weighed one hundred and seventy
pounds, or over twelve stone, so I contented myself with taking his
measure. Poor, misshapen little man! His skin an unhealthy colour,
body gnarled and twisted out of all decency, contracted chest,
shoulders bent prodigiously from long hours of toil, and head
hanging heavily forward and out of place! A "'earty man,' 'e was!"
"How tall are you?"
"Five foot two," he answered proudly; "an' the chaps at the shop . .
"Let me see that shop," I said.
The shop was idle just then, but I still desired to see it. Passing
Leman Street, we cut off to the left into Spitalfields, and dived
into Frying-pan Alley. A spawn of children cluttered the slimy
pavement, for all the world like tadpoles just turned frogs on the
bottom of a dry pond. In a narrow doorway, so narrow that perforce
we stepped over her, sat a woman with a young babe, nursing at
breasts grossly naked and libelling all the sacredness of
motherhood. In the black and narrow hall behind her we waded
through a mess of young life, and essayed an even narrower and
fouler stairway. Up we went, three flights, each landing two feet
by three in area, and heaped with filth and refuse.
There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house. In six
of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked,
ate, slept, and worked. In size the rooms averaged eight feet by
eight, or possibly nine. The seventh room we entered. It was the
den in which five men "sweated." It was seven feet wide by eight
long, and the table at which the work was performed took up the
major portion of the space. On this table were five lasts, and
there was barely room for the men to stand to their work, for the
rest of the space was heaped with cardboard, leather, bundles of
shoe uppers, and a miscellaneous assortment of materials used in
attaching the uppers of shoes to their soles.
In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children. In another
vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying
of consumption. The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was
told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the
three quarts of milk he daily required. Further, this son, weak and
dying, did not taste meat oftener than once a week; and the kind and
quality of this meat cannot possibly be imagined by people who have
never watched human swine eat.
"The w'y 'e coughs is somethin' terrible," volunteered my sweated
friend, referring to the dying boy. "We 'ear 'im 'ere, w'ile we're
workin', an' it's terrible, I say, terrible!"
And, what of the coughing and the sweetmeats, I found another menace
added to the hostile environment of the children of the slum.
My sweated friend, when work was to be had, toiled with four other
men in his eight-by-seven room. In the winter a lamp burned nearly
all the day and added its fumes to the over-loaded air, which was
breathed, and breathed, and breathed again.
In good times, when there was a rush of work, this man told me that
he could earn as high as "thirty bob a week."--Thirty shillings!
Seven dollars and a half!
"But it's only the best of us can do it," he qualified. "An' then
we work twelve, thirteen, and fourteen hours a day, just as fast as
we can. An' you should see us sweat! Just running from us! If you
could see us, it'd dazzle your eyes--tacks flyin' out of mouth like
from a machine. Look at my mouth."
I looked. The teeth were worn down by the constant friction of the
metallic brads, while they were coal-black and rotten.
"I clean my teeth," he added, "else they'd be worse."
After he had told me that the workers had to furnish their own
tools, brads, "grindery," cardboard, rent, light, and what not, it
was plain that his thirty bob was a diminishing quantity.
"But how long does the rush season last, in which you receive this
high wage of thirty bob?" I asked.
"Four months," was the answer; and for the rest of the year, he
informed me, they average from "half a quid" to a "quid" a week,
which is equivalent to from two dollars and a half to five dollars.
The present week was half gone, and he had earned four bob, or one
dollar. And yet I was given to understand that this was one of the
better grades of sweating.
I looked out of the window, which should have commanded the back
yards of the neighbouring buildings. But there were no back yards,
or, rather, they were covered with one-storey hovels, cowsheds, in
which people lived. The roofs of these hovels were covered with
deposits of filth, in some places a couple of feet deep--the
contributions from the back windows of the second and third storeys.
I could make out fish and meat bones, garbage, pestilential rags,
old boots, broken earthenware, and all the general refuse of a human
"This is the last year of this trade; they're getting machines to do
away with us," said the sweated one mournfully, as we stepped over
the woman with the breasts grossly naked and waded anew through the
cheap young life.
We next visited the municipal dwellings erected by the London County
Council on the site of the slums where lived Arthur Morrison's
"Child of the Jago." While the buildings housed more people than
before, it was much healthier. But the dwellings were inhabited by
the better-class workmen and artisans. The slum people had simply
drifted on to crowd other slums or to form new slums.
"An' now," said the sweated one, the 'earty man who worked so fast
as to dazzle one's eyes, "I'll show you one of London's lungs. This
is Spitalfields Garden." And he mouthed the word "garden" with
The shadow of Christ's Church falls across Spitalfields Garden, and
in the shadow of Christ's Church, at three o'clock in the afternoon,
I saw a sight I never wish to see again. There are no flowers in
this garden, which is smaller than my own rose garden at home.
Grass only grows here, and it is surrounded by a sharp-spiked iron
fencing, as are all the parks of London Town, so that homeless men
and women may not come in at night and sleep upon it.
As we entered the garden, an old woman, between fifty and sixty,
passed us, striding with sturdy intention if somewhat rickety
action, with two bulky bundles, covered with sacking, slung fore and
aft upon her. She was a woman tramp, a houseless soul, too
independent to drag her failing carcass through the workhouse door.
Like the snail, she carried her home with her. In the two sacking-
covered bundles were her household goods, her wardrobe, linen, and
dear feminine possessions.
We went up the narrow gravelled walk. On the benches on either side
arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity, the sight of
which would have impelled Dore to more diabolical flights of fancy
than he ever succeeded in achieving. It was a welter of rags and
filth, of all manner of loathsome skin diseases, open sores,
bruises, grossness, indecency, leering monstrosities, and bestial
faces. A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled
there in their rags, sleeping for the most part, or trying to sleep.
Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty years to
seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat
on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with any
one looking after it. Next half-a-dozen men, sleeping bolt upright
or leaning against one another in their sleep. In one place a
family group, a child asleep in its sleeping mother's arms, and the
husband (or male mate) clumsily mending a dilapidated shoe. On
another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a
knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.
Adjoining, a man holding a sleeping woman in his arms. Farther on,
a man, his clothing caked with gutter mud, asleep, with head in the
lap of a woman, not more than twenty-five years old, and also
It was this sleeping that puzzled me. Why were nine out of ten of
them asleep or trying to sleep? But it was not till afterwards that
I learned. IT IS A LAW OF THE POWERS THAT BE THAT THE HOMELESS
SHALL NOT SLEEP BY NIGHT. On the pavement, by the portico of
Christ's Church, where the stone pillars rise toward the sky in a
stately row, were whole rows of men lying asleep or drowsing, and
all too deep sunk in torpor to rouse or be made curious by our
"A lung of London," I said; "nay, an abscess, a great putrescent
"Oh, why did you bring me here?" demanded the burning young
socialist, his delicate face white with sickness of soul and stomach
"Those women there," said our guide, "will sell themselves for
thru'pence, or tu'pence, or a loaf of stale bread."
He said it with a cheerful sneer.
But what more he might have said I do not know, for the sick man
cried, "For heaven's sake let us get out of this."
CHAPTER VII--A WINNER OF THE VICTORIA CROSS
I have found that it is not easy to get into the casual ward of the
workhouse. I have made two attempts now, and I shall shortly make a
third. The first time I started out at seven o'clock in the evening
with four shillings in my pocket. Herein I committed two errors.
In the first place, the applicant for admission to the casual ward
must be destitute, and as he is subjected to a rigorous search, he
must really be destitute; and fourpence, much less four shillings,
is sufficient affluence to disqualify him. In the second place, I
made the mistake of tardiness. Seven o'clock in the evening is too
late in the day for a pauper to get a pauper's bed.
For the benefit of gently nurtured and innocent folk, let me explain
what a ward is. It is a building where the homeless, bedless,
penniless man, if he be lucky, may CASUALLY rest his weary bones,
and then work like a navvy next day to pay for it.
My second attempt to break into the casual ward began more
auspiciously. I started in the middle of the afternoon, accompanied
by the burning young socialist and another friend, and all I had in
my pocket was thru'pence. They piloted me to the Whitechapel
Workhouse, at which I peered from around a friendly corner. It was
a few minutes past five in the afternoon but already a long and
melancholy line was formed, which strung out around the corner of
the building and out of sight.
It was a most woeful picture, men and women waiting in the cold grey
end of the day for a pauper's shelter from the night, and I confess
it almost unnerved me. Like the boy before the dentist's door, I
suddenly discovered a multitude of reasons for being elsewhere.
Some hints of the struggle going on within must have shown in my
face, for one of my companions said, "Don't funk; you can do it."
Of course I could do it, but I became aware that even thru'pence in
my pocket was too lordly a treasure for such a throng; and, in order
that all invidious distinctions might be removed, I emptied out the
coppers. Then I bade good-bye to my friends, and with my heart
going pit-a-pat, slouched down the street and took my place at the
end of the line. Woeful it looked, this line of poor folk tottering
on the steep pitch to death; how woeful it was I did not dream.
Next to me stood a short, stout man. Hale and hearty, though aged,
strong-featured, with the tough and leathery skin produced by long
years of sunbeat and weatherbeat, his was the unmistakable sea face
and eyes; and at once there came to me a bit of Kipling's "Galley
"By the brand upon my shoulder, by the gall of clinging steel;
By the welt the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;
By eyes grown old with staring through the sun-wash on the brine,
I am paid in full for service . . . "
How correct I was in my surmise, and how peculiarly appropriate the
verse was, you shall learn.
"I won't stand it much longer, I won't," he was complaining to the
man on the other side of him. "I'll smash a windy, a big 'un, an'
get run in for fourteen days. Then I'll have a good place to sleep,
never fear, an' better grub than you get here. Though I'd miss my
bit of bacey"--this as an after-thought, and said regretfully and
"I've been out two nights now," he went on; "wet to the skin night
before last, an' I can't stand it much longer. I'm gettin' old, an'
some mornin' they'll pick me up dead."
He whirled with fierce passion on me: "Don't you ever let yourself
grow old, lad. Die when you're young, or you'll come to this. I'm
tellin' you sure. Seven an' eighty years am I, an' served my
country like a man. Three good-conduct stripes and the Victoria
Cross, an' this is what I get for it. I wish I was dead, I wish I
was dead. Can't come any too quick for me, I tell you."
The moisture rushed into his eyes, but, before the other man could
comfort him, he began to hum a lilting sea song as though there was
no such thing as heartbreak in the world.
Given encouragement, this is the story he told while waiting in line
at the workhouse after two nights of exposure in the streets.
As a boy he had enlisted in the British navy, and for two score
years and more served faithfully and well. Names, dates,
commanders, ports, ships, engagements, and battles, rolled from his
lips in a steady stream, but it is beyond me to remember them all,
for it is not quite in keeping to take notes at the poorhouse door.
He had been through the "First War in China," as he termed it; had
enlisted with the East India Company and served ten years in India;
was back in India again, in the English navy, at the time of the
Mutiny; had served in the Burmese War and in the Crimea; and all
this in addition to having fought and toiled for the English flag
pretty well over the rest of the globe.
Then the thing happened. A little thing, it could only be traced
back to first causes: perhaps the lieutenant's breakfast had not
agreed with him; or he had been up late the night before; or his
debts were pressing; or the commander had spoken brusquely to him.
The point is, that on this particular day the lieutenant was
irritable. The sailor, with others, was "setting up" the fore
Now, mark you, the sailor had been over forty years in the navy, had
three good-conduct stripes, and possessed the Victoria Cross for
distinguished service in battle; so he could not have been such an
altogether bad sort of a sailorman. The lieutenant was irritable;
the lieutenant called him a name--well, not a nice sort of name. It
referred to his mother. When I was a boy it was our boys' code to
fight like little demons should such an insult be given our mothers;
and many men have died in my part of the world for calling other men
However, the lieutenant called the sailor this name. At that moment
it chanced the sailor had an iron lever or bar in his hands. He
promptly struck the lieutenant over the head with it, knocking him
out of the rigging and overboard.
And then, in the man's own words: "I saw what I had done. I knew
the Regulations, and I said to myself, 'It's all up with you, Jack,
my boy; so here goes.' An' I jumped over after him, my mind made up
to drown us both. An' I'd ha' done it, too, only the pinnace from
the flagship was just comin' alongside. Up we came to the top, me a
hold of him an' punchin' him. This was what settled for me. If I
hadn't ben strikin' him, I could have claimed that, seein' what I
had done, I jumped over to save him."
Then came the court-martial, or whatever name a sea trial goes by.
He recited his sentence, word for word, as though memorised and gone
over in bitterness many times. And here it is, for the sake of
discipline and respect to officers not always gentlemen, the
punishment of a man who was guilty of manhood. To be reduced to the
rank of ordinary seaman; to be debarred all prize-money due him; to
forfeit all rights to pension; to resign the Victoria Cross; to be
discharged from the navy with a good character (this being his first
offence); to receive fifty lashes; and to serve two years in prison.
"I wish I had drowned that day, I wish to God I had," he concluded,
as the line moved up and we passed around the corner.
At last the door came in sight, through which the paupers were being
admitted in bunches. And here I learned a surprising thing: THIS
BEING WEDNESDAY, NONE OF US WOULD BE RELEASED TILL FRIDAY MORNING.
Furthermore, and oh, you tobacco users, take heed: WE WOULD NOT BE
PERMITTED TO TAKE IN ANY TOBACCO. This we would have to surrender
as we entered. Sometimes, I was told, it was returned on leaving
and sometimes it was destroyed.
The old man-of-war's man gave me a lesson. Opening his pouch, he
emptied the tobacco (a pitiful quantity) into a piece of paper.
This, snugly and flatly wrapped, went down his sock inside his shoe.
Down went my piece of tobacco inside my sock, for forty hours
without tobacco is a hardship all tobacco users will understand.
Again and again the line moved up, and we were slowly but surely
approaching the wicket. At the moment we happened to be standing on
an iron grating, and a man appearing underneath, the old sailor
called down to him, -
"How many more do they want?"
"Twenty-four," came the answer.
We looked ahead anxiously and counted. Thirty-four were ahead of
us. Disappointment and consternation dawned upon the faces about
me. It is not a nice thing, hungry and penniless, to face a
sleepless night in the streets. But we hoped against hope, till,
when ten stood outside the wicket, the porter turned us away.
"Full up," was what he said, as he banged the door.
Like a flash, for all his eighty-seven years, the old sailor was
speeding away on the desperate chance of finding shelter elsewhere.
I stood and debated with two other men, wise in the knowledge of
casual wards, as to where we should go. They decided on the Poplar
Workhouse, three miles away, and we started off.
As we rounded the corner, one of them said, "I could a' got in 'ere
to-day. I come by at one o'clock, an' the line was beginnin' to
form then--pets, that's what they are. They let 'm in, the same
ones, night upon night."
CHAPTER VIII--THE CARTER AND THE CARPENTER
The Carter, with his clean-cut face, chin beard, and shaved upper
lip, I should have taken in the United States for anything from a
master workman to a well-to-do farmer. The Carpenter--well, I
should have taken him for a carpenter. He looked it, lean and wiry,
with shrewd, observant eyes, and hands that had grown twisted to the
handles of tools through forty-seven years' work at the trade. The
chief difficulty with these men was that they were old, and that
their children, instead of growing up to take care of them, had
died. Their years had told on them, and they had been forced out of
the whirl of industry by the younger and stronger competitors who
had taken their places.
These two men, turned away from the casual ward of Whitechapel
Workhouse, were bound with me for Poplar Workhouse. Not much of a
show, they thought, but to chance it was all that remained to us.
It was Poplar, or the streets and night. Both men were anxious for
a bed, for they were "about gone," as they phrased it. The Carter,
fifty-eight years of age, had spent the last three nights without
shelter or sleep, while the Carpenter, sixty-five years of age, had
been out five nights.
But, O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, with white beds
and airy rooms waiting you each night, how can I make you know what
it is to suffer as you would suffer if you spent a weary night on
London's streets! Believe me, you would think a thousand centuries
had come and gone before the east paled into dawn; you would shiver
till you were ready to cry aloud with the pain of each aching
muscle; and you would marvel that you could endure so much and live.
Should you rest upon a bench, and your tired eyes close, depend upon
it the policeman would rouse you and gruffly order you to "move on."
You may rest upon the bench, and benches are few and far between;
but if rest means sleep, on you must go, dragging your tired body
through the endless streets. Should you, in desperate slyness, seek
some forlorn alley or dark passageway and lie down, the omnipresent
policeman will rout you out just the same. It is his business to
rout you out. It is a law of the powers that be that you shall be
But when the dawn came, the nightmare over, you would hale you home
to refresh yourself, and until you died you would tell the story of
your adventure to groups of admiring friends. It would grow into a
mighty story. Your little eight-hour night would become an Odyssey
and you a Homer.
Not so with these homeless ones who walked to Poplar Workhouse with
me. And there are thirty-five thousand of them, men and women, in
London Town this night. Please don't remember it as you go to bed;
if you are as soft as you ought to be you may not rest so well as
usual. But for old men of sixty, seventy, and eighty, ill-fed, with
neither meat nor blood, to greet the dawn unrefreshed, and to
stagger through the day in mad search for crusts, with relentless
night rushing down upon them again, and to do this five nights and
days--O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, how can you ever
I walked up Mile End Road between the Carter and the Carpenter.
Mile End Road is a wide thoroughfare, cutting the heart of East
London, and there were tens of thousands of people abroad on it. I
tell you this so that you may fully appreciate what I shall describe
in the next paragraph. As I say, we walked along, and when they
grew bitter and cursed the land, I cursed with them, cursed as an
American waif would curse, stranded in a strange and terrible land.
And, as I tried to lead them to believe, and succeeded in making
them believe, they took me for a "seafaring man," who had spent his
money in riotous living, lost his clothes (no unusual occurrence
with seafaring men ashore), and was temporarily broke while looking
for a ship. This accounted for my ignorance of English ways in
general and casual wards in particular, and my curiosity concerning
The Carter was hard put to keep the pace at which we walked (he told
me that he had eaten nothing that day), but the Carpenter, lean and
hungry, his grey and ragged overcoat flapping mournfully in the
breeze, swung on in a long and tireless stride which reminded me
strongly of the plains wolf or coyote. Both kept their eyes upon
the pavement as they walked and talked, and every now and then one
or the other would stoop and pick something up, never missing the
stride the while. I thought it was cigar and cigarette stumps they
were collecting, and for some time took no notice. Then I did
FROM THE SLIMY, SPITTLE-DRENCHED, SIDEWALK, THEY WERE PICKING UP
BITS OF ORANGE PEEL, APPLE SKIN, AND GRAPE STEMS, AND, THEY WERE
EATING THEM. THE PITS OF GREENGAGE PLUMS THEY CRACKED BETWEEN THEIR
TEETH FOR THE KERNELS INSIDE. THEY PICKED UP STRAY BITS OF BREAD
THE SIZE OF PEAS, APPLE CORES SO BLACK AND DIRTY ONE WOULD NOT TAKE
THEM TO BE APPLE CORES, AND THESE THINGS THESE TWO MEN TOOK INTO
THEIR MOUTHS, AND CHEWED THEM, AND SWALLOWED THEM; AND THIS, BETWEEN
SIX AND SEVEN O'CLOCK IN THE EVENING OF AUGUST 20, YEAR OF OUR LORD
1902, IN THE HEART OF THE GREATEST, WEALTHIEST, AND MOST POWERFUL
EMPIRE THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.
These two men talked. They were not fools, they were merely old.
And, naturally, their guts a-reek with pavement offal, they talked
of bloody revolution. They talked as anarchists, fanatics, and
madmen would talk. And who shall blame them? In spite of my three
good meals that day, and the snug bed I could occupy if I wished,
and my social philosophy, and my evolutionary belief in the slow
development and metamorphosis of things--in spite of all this, I
say, I felt impelled to talk rot with them or hold my tongue. Poor
fools! Not of their sort are revolutions bred. And when they are
dead and dust, which will be shortly, other fools will talk bloody
revolution as they gather offal from the spittle-drenched sidewalk
along Mile End Road to Poplar Workhouse.
Being a foreigner, and a young man, the Carter and the Carpenter
explained things to me and advised me. Their advice, by the way,
was brief, and to the point; it was to get out of the country. "As
fast as God'll let me," I assured them; "I'll hit only the high
places, till you won't be able to see my trail for smoke." They
felt the force of my figures, rather than understood them, and they
nodded their heads approvingly.
"Actually make a man a criminal against 'is will," said the
Carpenter. "'Ere I am, old, younger men takin' my place, my clothes
gettin' shabbier an' shabbier, an' makin' it 'arder every day to get
a job. I go to the casual ward for a bed. Must be there by two or
three in the afternoon or I won't get in. You saw what happened to-
day. What chance does that give me to look for work? S'pose I do
get into the casual ward? Keep me in all day to-morrow, let me out
mornin' o' next day. What then? The law sez I can't get in another
casual ward that night less'n ten miles distant. Have to hurry an'
walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to
look for a job? S'pose I don't walk. S'pose I look for a job? In
no time there's night come, an' no bed. No sleep all night, nothin'
to eat, what shape am I in the mornin' to look for work? Got to
make up my sleep in the park somehow" (the vision of Christ's
Church, Spitalfield, was strong on me) "an' get something to eat.
An' there I am! Old, down, an' no chance to get up."
"Used to be a toll-gate 'ere," said the Carter. "Many's the time
I've paid my toll 'ere in my cartin' days."
"I've 'ad three 'a'penny rolls in two days," the Carpenter
announced, after a long pause in the conversation. "Two of them I
ate yesterday, an' the third to-day," he concluded, after another
"I ain't 'ad anything to-day," said the Carter. "An' I'm fagged
out. My legs is hurtin' me something fearful."
"The roll you get in the 'spike' is that 'ard you can't eat it
nicely with less'n a pint of water," said the Carpenter, for my
benefit. And, on asking him what the "spike" was, he answered, "The
casual ward. It's a cant word, you know."
But what surprised me was that he should have the word "cant" in his
vocabulary, a vocabulary that I found was no mean one before we
I asked them what I might expect in the way of treatment, if we
succeeded in getting into the Poplar Workhouse, and between them I
was supplied with much information. Having taken a cold bath on
entering, I would be given for supper six ounces of bread and "three
parts of skilly." "Three parts" means three-quarters of a pint, and
"skilly" is a fluid concoction of three quarts of oatmeal stirred
into three buckets and a half of hot water.
"Milk and sugar, I suppose, and a silver spoon?" I queried.
"No fear. Salt's what you'll get, an' I've seen some places where
you'd not get any spoon. 'Old 'er up an' let 'er run down, that's
'ow they do it."
"You do get good skilly at 'Ackney," said the Carter.
"Oh, wonderful skilly, that," praised the Carpenter, and each looked
eloquently at the other.
"Flour an' water at St. George's in the East," said the Carter.
The Carpenter nodded. He had tried them all.
"Then what?" I demanded
And I was informed that I was sent directly to bed. "Call you at
half after five in the mornin', an' you get up an' take a 'sluice'--
if there's any soap. Then breakfast, same as supper, three parts o'
skilly an' a six-ounce loaf."
"'Tisn't always six ounces," corrected the Carter.
"'Tisn't, no; an' often that sour you can 'ardly eat it. When first
I started I couldn't eat the skilly nor the bread, but now I can eat
my own an' another man's portion."
"I could eat three other men's portions," said the Carter. "I
'aven't 'ad a bit this blessed day."
"Then you've got to do your task, pick four pounds of oakum, or
clean an' scrub, or break ten to eleven hundredweight o' stones. I
don't 'ave to break stones; I'm past sixty, you see. They'll make
you do it, though. You're young an' strong."
"What I don't like," grumbled the Carter, "is to be locked up in a
cell to pick oakum. It's too much like prison."
"But suppose, after you've had your night's sleep, you refuse to
pick oakum, or break stones, or do any work at all?" I asked.
"No fear you'll refuse the second time; they'll run you in,"
answered the Carpenter. "Wouldn't advise you to try it on, my lad."
"Then comes dinner," he went on. "Eight ounces of bread, one and a
arf ounces of cheese, an' cold water. Then you finish your task an'
'ave supper, same as before, three parts o' skilly any six ounces o'
bread. Then to bed, six o'clock, an' next mornin' you're turned
loose, provided you've finished your task."
We had long since left Mile End Road, and after traversing a gloomy
maze of narrow, winding streets, we came to Poplar Workhouse. On a
low stone wall we spread our handkerchiefs, and each in his
handkerchief put all his worldly possessions, with the exception of
the "bit o' baccy" down his sock. And then, as the last light was
fading from the drab-coloured sky, the wind blowing cheerless and
cold, we stood, with our pitiful little bundles in our hands, a
forlorn group at the workhouse door.
Three working girls came along, and one looked pityingly at me; as
she passed I followed her with my eyes, and she still looked
pityingly back at me. The old men she did not notice. Dear Christ,
she pitied me, young and vigorous and strong, but she had no pity
for the two old men who stood by my side! She was a young woman,
and I was a young man, and what vague sex promptings impelled her to
pity me put her sentiment on the lowest plane. Pity for old men is
an altruistic feeling, and besides, the workhouse door is the
accustomed place for old men. So she showed no pity for them, only
for me, who deserved it least or not at all. Not in honour do grey
hairs go down to the grave in London Town.
On one side the door was a bell handle, on the other side a press
"Ring the bell," said the Carter to me.
And just as I ordinarily would at anybody's door, I pulled out the
handle and rang a peal.
"Oh! Oh!" they cried in one terrified voice. "Not so 'ard!"
I let go, and they looked reproachfully at me, as though I had
imperilled their chance for a bed and three parts of skilly. Nobody
came. Luckily it was the wrong bell, and I felt better.
"Press the button," I said to the Carpenter.
"No, no, wait a bit," the Carter hurriedly interposed.
From all of which I drew the conclusion that a poorhouse porter, who
commonly draws a yearly salary of from seven to nine pounds, is a
very finicky and important personage, and cannot be treated too
So we waited, ten times a decent interval, when the Carter
stealthily advanced a timid forefinger to the button, and gave it
the faintest, shortest possible push. I have looked at waiting men
where life or death was in the issue; but anxious suspense showed
less plainly on their faces than it showed on the faces of these two
men as they waited on the coming of the porter.
He came. He barely looked at us. "Full up," he said and shut the
"Another night of it," groaned the Carpenter. In the dim light the
Carter looked wan and grey.
Indiscriminate charity is vicious, say the professional
philanthropists. Well, I resolved to be vicious.
"Come on; get your knife out and come here," I said to the Carter,
drawing him into a dark alley.
He glared at me in a frightened manner, and tried to draw back.
Possibly he took me for a latter-day Jack-the-Ripper, with a
penchant for elderly male paupers. Or he may have thought I was
inveigling him into the commission of some desperate crime. Anyway,
he was frightened.
It will be remembered, at the outset, that I sewed a pound inside my
stoker's singlet under the armpit. This was my emergency fund, and
I was now called upon to use it for the first time.
Not until I had gone through the acts of a contortionist, and shown
the round coin sewed in, did I succeed in getting the Carter's help.
Even then his hand was trembling so that I was afraid he would cut
me instead of the stitches, and I was forced to take the knife away
and do it myself. Out rolled the gold piece, a fortune in their
hungry eyes; and away we stampeded for the nearest coffee-house.
Of course I had to explain to them that I was merely an
investigator, a social student, seeking to find out how the other
half lived. And at once they shut up like clams. I was not of
their kind; my speech had changed, the tones of my voice were
different, in short, I was a superior, and they were superbly class
"What will you have?" I asked, as the waiter came for the order.
"Two slices an' a cup of tea," meekly said the Carter.
"Two slices an' a cup of tea," meekly said the Carpenter.
Stop a moment, and consider the situation. Here were two men,
invited by me into the coffee-house. They had seen my gold piece,
and they could understand that I was no pauper. One had eaten a
ha'penny roll that day, the other had eaten nothing. And they
called for "two slices an' a cup of tea!" Each man had given a
tu'penny order. "Two slices," by the way, means two slices of bread
This was the same degraded humility that had characterised their
attitude toward the poorhouse porter. But I wouldn't have it. Step
by step I increased their order--eggs, rashers of bacon, more eggs,
more bacon, more tea, more slices and so forth--they denying
wistfully all the while that they cared for anything more, and
devouring it ravenously as fast as it arrived.
"First cup o' tea I've 'ad in a fortnight," said the Carter.
"Wonderful tea, that," said the Carpenter.
They each drank two pints of it, and I assure you that it was slops.
It resembled tea less than lager beer resembles champagne. Nay, it
was "water-bewitched," and did not resemble tea at all.
It was curious, after the first shock, to notice the effect the food
had on them. At first they were melancholy, and talked of the
divers times they had contemplated suicide. The Carter, not a week
before, had stood on the bridge and looked at the water, and
pondered the question. Water, the Carpenter insisted with heat, was
a bad route. He, for one, he knew, would struggle. A bullet was
"'andier," but how under the sun was he to get hold of a revolver?
That was the rub.
They grew more cheerful as the hot "tea" soaked in, and talked more
about themselves. The Carter had buried his wife and children, with
the exception of one son, who grew to manhood and helped him in his
little business. Then the thing happened. The son, a man of
thirty-one, died of the smallpox. No sooner was this over than the
father came down with fever and went to the hospital for three
months. Then he was done for. He came out weak, debilitated, no
strong young son to stand by him, his little business gone
glimmering, and not a farthing. The thing had happened, and the
game was up. No chance for an old man to start again. Friends all
poor and unable to help. He had tried for work when they were
putting up the stands for the first Coronation parade. "An' I got
fair sick of the answer: 'No! no! no!' It rang in my ears at night
when I tried to sleep, always the same, 'No! no! no!'" Only the
past week he had answered an advertisement in Hackney, and on giving
his age was told, "Oh, too old, too old by far."
The Carpenter had been born in the army, where his father had served
twenty-two years. Likewise, his two brothers had gone into the
army; one, troop sergeant-major of the Seventh Hussars, dying in
India after the Mutiny; the other, after nine years under Roberts in
the East, had been lost in Egypt. The Carpenter had not gone into
the army, so here he was, still on the planet.
"But 'ere, give me your 'and," he said, ripping open his ragged
shirt. "I'm fit for the anatomist, that's all. I'm wastin' away,
sir, actually wastin' away for want of food. Feel my ribs an'
I put my hand under his shirt and felt. The skin was stretched like
parchment over the bones, and the sensation produced was for all the
world like running one's hand over a washboard.
"Seven years o' bliss I 'ad," he said. "A good missus and three
bonnie lassies. But they all died. Scarlet fever took the girls
inside a fortnight."
"After this, sir," said the Carter, indicating the spread, and
desiring to turn the conversation into more cheerful channels;
"after this, I wouldn't be able to eat a workhouse breakfast in the
"Nor I," agreed the Carpenter, and they fell to discussing belly
delights and the fine dishes their respective wives had cooked in
the old days.
"I've gone three days and never broke my fast," said the Carter.
"And I, five," his companion added, turning gloomy with the memory
of it. "Five days once, with nothing on my stomach but a bit of
orange peel, an' outraged nature wouldn't stand it, sir, an' I near
died. Sometimes, walkin' the streets at night, I've ben that
desperate I've made up my mind to win the horse or lose the saddle.
You know what I mean, sir--to commit some big robbery. But when
mornin' come, there was I, too weak from 'unger an' cold to 'arm a
As their poor vitals warmed to the food, they began to expand and
wax boastful, and to talk politics. I can only say that they talked
politics as well as the average middle-class man, and a great deal
better than some of the middle-class men I have heard. What
surprised me was the hold they had on the world, its geography and
peoples, and on recent and contemporaneous history. As I say, they
were not fools, these two men. They were merely old, and their
children had undutifully failed to grow up and give them a place by
One last incident, as I bade them good-bye on the corner, happy with
a couple of shillings in their pockets and the certain prospect of a
bed for the night. Lighting a cigarette, I was about to throw away
the burning match when the Carter reached for it. I proffered him
the box, but he said, "Never mind, won't waste it, sir." And while
he lighted the cigarette I had given him, the Carpenter hurried with
the filling of his pipe in order to have a go at the same match.
"It's wrong to waste," said he.
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