That our youth, dwelling, as it were, in a healthful place, may be profited on all sides, whence from the beautiful works something will be conveyed to the sight and hearing, as by a breeze bringing health from a salutary land.
I do not think that Plato would have found his ideal surroundings in Poplar. Yet, as you approach it after a very long tram ride, and notice the fine wide road [i.e. East India Dock Road] leading to the docks, and the considerable number of open spaces - tree-planted churchyards, fragments of old gardens, and recreation grounds - it does not seem to be such a bad place after all; there must always be a touch of romance in the sight of masts against the sky. To understand Poplar it is necessary to leave that wide road, to turn up one of the narrower ways which run at right angles from it, and to plunge into the network of small squalid streets which lies behind.
Here is a street of the sort I mean. It is long, containing over a hundred houses, all of the same design, all ugly and mean. In the basements are two rooms, one very small, and a kitchen which leads into a strip of grimy back-yard. The ground floors have two rooms, and stand a good way above the street level, in order that the basements may have light; on the top floors there are also two rooms.
The tenant of the house in this street which I know well pays a weekly rent of 23s. 8d., and disposes of his rooms as follows. He, his wife and four children occupy the front rooms in the basement and ground floor, and the kitchen; the small basement room is let to an aged relation for 3s. 6d. a week; the small ground floor room is let at the same rent to a woman who is a great invalid; the two rooms at the top are inhabited by a man, his wife and four children, who pay 7s. 6d. a week. Twelve years ago the rent of the entire house was 14s. 6d. On the whole this house is sparsely filled - for Poplar. There are plenty of places close at hand where a man, his wife and six children, have to make shift with two small rooms; but here two of the tenants enjoy the luxury of a room apiece.
In this long street there are only three houses in which water is laid on anywhere except in the basement. This means that if the occupier of an upstair room should have a wild desire for a bath - allowing that by some miracle space could be found for anything as big as a foot-tub - he or she must fetch the water from the basement, carry it upstairs and boil it, and later on carry down again the used water. It is a lot of trouble, and only the elect few who are determined to be clean will face it.
The tenant of this house is a ship's painter. As far as his wife remembers, he has had just nineteen days' work between January 1 and February 26. She was proud of his record.
'But then,' she said, 'he looks for work. And if he gets just a couple of days or so, he sends me round to tell at the Town Hall. They are good then, for they know he won't touch the money for a few days, and they give us food tickets.'
Her sister added 'And there are lots of young strong men round here who have not been able to find a day's work in two years, so they say. What do you think about that?'
We thought in sympathy for a minute.
When this man gets a full week's work he can earn 2l. 14s., and - wonderful to relate - his wife gets the 'laying of it out'; he only keeps 3s. a week for his own personal use.
My real friend in this house is the bedridden tenant of one of the small rooms. She is only thirty-eight, but has thought more and suffered more than most people twice her age. Because she is so kind and sympathetic, so ill and so brave, her neighbours fall into the habit of dropping in to ask her advice when they are more worried than usual. On the whole she thinks that things are improving slowly, in spite of much unemployment.
This is her story. When she was about nineteen she lost her father. A few weeks later the young man she was on the point of marrying died of pneumonia. Within six months of her father's death her mother died also, leaving to this one daughter the care of three younger brothers and a baby nine days old. She tackled the job, and did her best to combine going out to work and looking after the family. It was too much for her strength, and she was forced to apply to the guardians. At that time she was living just outside Poplar.
'Are you hungry?' asked the official she saw.
'The children are not, sir.'
He sat down and wrote out an order admitting the whole family to the workhouse, and offered it to her.
'No, sir, I won't go. If that's all you can do for a respectable girl trying to bring up her brothers, it's a pity.'
By some means this story came to the ears of the late Mr. Thomas Holmes, and he made inquiries. As a result another official called.
'Does Miss A. live here ?'
'Yes, sir, I am C. A.'
'Can I come in and have a talk with you?'
'But I am sent from the Town Hall.'
'Yes, sir; but I have only one room, and mother said I was never to allow a man to come in.'
How the thoroughly abashed official would ever have got his needed information I do not know, had not her friendly landlord offered his services as chaperon. She did get help then, and moved afterwards into the room in Poplar in which I saw her. Here she lies ; her short day's work is nearly over. She has seen her brothers start in life, but the poor little baby gave up its struggle for existence before it was four months old. She is quite content. The guardians allow her 15s. a week, and a well-beloved parish nurse tends her twice a day. Her father died of consumption, and her end is near. Perhaps she would have been able to avoid some part of her long, dreary years in bed had it not been for a war tragedy. A daylight air raid hit Poplar hard; a school near my friend's home was bombed, and she was sent for to help identify the body of a little boy to whom she had been kind, and could only do so by a button on his coat, which she had seen his mother sew on that morning. The last fragment of strength was exhausted, and to bed she had to go.
Poplar's greatest trouble is that it is full, over-full, brimming over ; it is so full that every additional human being entering the borough is bound to cause some slight extra inconvenience to those already living in it. Some weeks ago, by way of an experiment, I tried to find two rooms there. It was quite hopeless no one had heard of any to let. One friendly woman suggested a block of workmen's dwellings, in which she had heard of people getting single rooms for 6s. a week, or even 5s.; but she said there were none empty, and a long waiting list. A friendly man shook his head:
'None to be had. Why, one old gentleman I know has had to pay 8s. a week to get one unfurnished room.'
I did not see this room ; but 8s. is above the average price.
A very devoted lady, who has worked for forty years amongst the poor and sick, agreed:
'The place is crowded. There are a few houses not far off which have been condemned, and ought to be pulled down. But what is to be done with the people living in them? The guardians do what they can - ratepayers think they do at least as much as they should - but the difficulty is enormous. There is a small house just behind; it has six rooms. The guardians have taken it for an unemployed man and his family; the rent is 1l. a week. I do not say that it is too big for him, for he has a lot of children, but if he were in work he could not dream of paying such a rent himself.'
Perhaps the part of the borough which touches Bow is a little worse than the rest. Here is a squalid alley in which, in a four-roomed house, live a docker (casual labour), his wife and nine children. One of the rooms is let to an aged aunt ; the father, mother and nine share the other three. The rent of the house is 12s.; it has risen since the war by 2d. and 3d. from 8s. 6d. This man averages his wages at 30s. a week, but he can sometimes earn 2l. A neighbour, also a docker, makes from 2l. to 2l. 10s. a week, lets one of his rooms to his mother-in-law, and lives in the other three with his wife and six children.
This custom of letting one room to an aged member of the family is one of the results of the Old Age Pensions Act (which I bless from the bottom of my heart) ; without these pensions the poor old souls must have 'gone in'; their 10s. a week just enables their people to keep them out of the dreaded 'House.'
But the pensions come too late, especially in the cases of widows who have brought up families in difficult circumstances, and are now living alone. One such widow I know well; she is barely sixty, but finds it increasingly difficult to get work. She is so near the starvation line that when, at long intervals, I get a cry of distress from her, I know it means : 'Come at once! I am hungry!'
On being asked whether, on the whole, Poplar was better or worse off than it was twenty years ago, someone who has unique opportunities of learning the truth said:
'There is less grinding poverty, but more overcrowding. The people who are worst off are those in whom a spirit of independence forces them to take a few days' work when a whole week is not to be had. Then the neighbourhood was badly hit by the removal to the Clyde of some big shipping firms, and there is a rumour that others are going too, probably because the docks here are not really up to date. A great deal of money might be spent with advantage on them. This would give employment. And years ago there were some fairly well-to-do people living here in nice houses, but they have disappeared. Why? Well, the rates are 23s. in the pound.'
Two of these points were elaborated in an amusing manner by a working man with whom I had a long talk one day.
'Place going down ?' he said. 'Of course it is. Why, all the houses in that wide road by the docks used to be full of nothing but admirals only forty years ago.'
As I gazed in awe at this sometime 'Harmony Row,' he added, fearing he might have exaggerated slightly:
'Well, perhaps there was a captain or so there, too !'
On the subject of the growing antagonism between those who work and those who do not he waxed hot.
'There's a man lives near me who gets 3l. 8s. a week for himself and his family. He never thinks to get up before eleven o'clock except on the day he draws his money. He can afford soles for his tea, and I've seen him have to hand over 10s. in the bowling green.
There is some excuse for this feeling. For example, in another street live a man, his wife and three children; the man is in constant work at a chemical factory, and has long hours. (His wife's hours are even longer.) He succeeds in earning exactly 3s. a week more than his neighbour gets from the dole. The neighbour has been unemployed for years. There is a probability that both families will be increased this summer ; but to the factory hand this will mean more expense, whilst the other man will score, for his baby will bring its little income with it. This sort of thing does rouse scorn in the hearts of some of the workers. I asked a tram conductor if he lived in Poplar, and had an indignant answer:
'Me? No, I don't, and wouldn't. This is where they will give you anything you like to ask as long as you'll do nothing. It beats me why anyone works here.'
Poplar's second trouble is its foreign population. The foreigners accused, in most of the tales of woe I have heard, are either Chinese or Jews. In the case of the Chinese the affair turns as a rule on the unhappy plight of some white girl, for though gambling is mentioned, it is regarded with the utmost toleration. In the case of the Jews the story turns always on houses or money.
As a specimen of the first class I give the following: A respectable English girl was mad enough to marry a Chinese, legally as far as this country goes; at least, she was not aware that he had any wife in his native land. She lived with him for some years, and had four children, who 'all took after father'; then he went back to China, promising to send for her and the children, and that was the last she heard of him. For some time she tried to keep herself and her family, but at last ceased to try, and went to live with another Chinese. By him she had two more children. After a few years he also deserted her; and now she and the six children have to be supported by the rates. What else could be done ? They could not be left to starve.
'Girls should be warned,' said a friend. Quite so. But who ever knew any girl accept a warning against a man in whom she had faith? Doubtless she knew that things like that had happened to - I was going to say Mary and Jane, but substitute Gladys and 'Vawlet' - but she knew that they would not happen to her. There are many such tales about, but everyone who tells one adds : 'It is far worse in Limehouse.' Against Lascars there are far fewer complaints, perhaps because the arm of the British Empire is long.
As to the Jews and their skill in getting possession of houses, it must be owned that in many cases they deserve them, for they have keen sight and swift judgment. A few years ago I should not have thought that Poplar was a favourite Jewish hunting-ground. Even to-day if you look at the names above the shops you will see more Browns and Smiths than Birnbaums and Israelvitches. But I am told by many independent witnesses that the number of Jews in the borough is increasing fast; and it has been pointed out to me that a new synagogue has arisen on the site once occupied by Church schools. An old soldier, who complained bitterly that he could find no house, said: 'There was one I would have liked, only I hadn't the "ready." There was a bit of a shindy a year or so ago, Chinese riots, and so on; the crowd broke down the doors and windows, and made a bonfire in the street. Next morning, when the owner was looking at the wreck, along comes a Jew, and offers him 200l. down for it. He gets it, and has to spend 80l. putting the place together again. Now he lives in it, with his family and some workpeople - they make clothes - and some of them sleeps whilst the others works, and then they take it turn and turn about. Coining money he is.'
Yet, oddly enough, he said a minute later:
'But it doesn't do to go against the Jews. It's Bible, or some thing. If you go against them you don't prosper. That's why Russia went to pieces; they weren't very kind to the Jews there.
A woman-friend told me with glee the story of her grandson's search for rooms. He is married, has one child, and is in good, well-paid work.
'Getting on well, he is; but they won't be happy until they have a place of their own. Living with parents don't do, and was never meant. He hears of rooms, and is off to see them before work. Four rooms, one a slip of a scullery. Twenty-five shillings a week she asks. "And then," she says, "there's the beautiful furniture. You will have to pay 30l. for that." "Where's the furniture?" he asks. Well, there was a bit of linoleum, and two or three chairs; but that was only an excuse. "I don't know that it will suit me," he says, "and I think you are all Jews round here."
"None the worse for that," she says. " P'r'aps not; I couldn't say. But you don't seem much the better for it. I'll tell you what we'll do. You shall keep your key and the beautiful furniture, and I'll keep my 30l. and my 25s. a week, and we shall both be happy."
Poplar is a healthy place. Look at the children running off to school when the bell rings. They seem well fed and warmly clothed. Even the overcrowding has not appeared to affect them as yet. It may be that it is that the river still runs, and some good air comes from it. What a lot of children there are in the borough! According to the latest statistics which I have seen, the death rate is 10.0, and the birth rate 22.9. The people who spend their spare time in begging others to have large and ever larger families should go to Poplar - when they can get in. No place could be more gratifying to their feelings.
A very large proportion of the deaths amongst the men can be put down to pneumonia, either associated with influenza or with long exposure to intense cold. Amongst the women I hate to note the increase - not only in Poplar, but throughout the East End - of deaths from cancer. I happen to hear of many of these because the Home Workers' Aid Association, with which I am connected, works so much amongst women of late middle age or elderly women. I looked up the minutes of some of our committee meetings in order to be sure I was not exaggerating, and it appears to me that three out of five of our members die of cancer. Why? Is it the houses? I suspect some of them, because of a curious smell of rotten wood which I can detect through other odours. Is it the food? I suspect that too. Or has it anything to do with the almost universal neglect of the teeth ? I was lamenting this neglect to a lady who knows much more about the East End than I do. She said:
'My dear, those women think nothing of having a baby, simply nothing at all; but to have a tooth out is a major operation. I begged Mrs. X. - you know she is always ill - to have her teeth seen to. She said: "Well, miss, I don't say that you're not right. I do find it difficult to domesticate my food."
Mrs. X. is a lineal descendant of Mrs. Malaprop. She complained that her grown-up son was not so generous to her as he used to be 'before his last extraction.' 'Ah, then he suffers also from his teeth ?' 'His teeth, miss? No, they're all right; they don't take his money. It is his new young lady.' Perhaps 'extraction,' in this new sense, may be a much-needed word.
What is to be done with these acres sown with ugly, inconvenient, insanitary houses? Up to the present I think that we, as a nation, have shown a bad mixture of extravagance and parsimony. We have tinkered and patched when we ought to have destroyed and rebuilt. In Poplar, as in Hoxton, I have heard of houses so far gone in decay that when inquiries were made, in order to force repairs, the real owners could not be traced. I understand the natural reluctance of owners to acknowledge such property, but I do want to know who gets the rent.
Would it be impossible for the nation to buy up some of the worst slums? And would it be impossible to acquire also the nearest unoccupied land ? Certainly not parks or tree-filled squares, or other open spaces, which are worth more than much fine gold; but waste land which is waiting until some enterprising builder thinks it 'ripe.' I have seen numbers of empty army huts left in deserted camps; if these have become uninhabitable, others could be built. Might not tramways be run out to hut settlements, tramways which should be free? By degrees the tenants of rooms in the worst slums could be moved out to the huts, to temporary homes. They might take all their furniture which could be cleansed and disinfected; the rest should be destroyed and replaced. Then there might be a glorious burning down of the disgusting boxes misnamed houses. Of course all temporarily evicted tenants would have the promise of being restored to better rooms at the same rent.
I am asked how this would help the overcrowding. As a rule the worst houses are low - only a basement and two storeys; there seems to be no reason why the new houses should not be one or two storeys higher. I would not allow anyone to sleep in the basements; they should be put to their proper use for coal and other storage, possibly for washhouses.
'It would cost an enormous amount. England cannot afford it.'
Can England afford dirt and degradation? Can she afford to let a mother, her two nearly grown-up daughters, and a grown-up son sleep in the same room? Can she afford to let a large number of her men get entirely out of the habit of work? A big effort of this kind would employ a small army, and would give work to dozens of different trades. It would be very costly, but when the bill was paid there would be something to show for our money. At present we throw away large sums on patching up a state of things of which we are ashamed. England may or may not be able to afford a grand fight against a great evil, but I am pretty well sure that she will not long be able to afford Poplar.
by Sydney K. Phelps