THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers' cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 - for years. It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general's return of deaths from starvation - the most awful of all deaths - for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not "managed," not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors. We are evidently surrounded by a dense population, half buried in black kitchens and sewer-like courts and alleys, who are not raised by any real or fancied advance in wages; whose way of life is steeped in ignorance, dirt, and crime; and who are always ready to sink, even to death, at their usual period of want. How many they really number, what they really profess to be, and in what proportion they may be found in different parts of the metropolis, are secrets that no census has ever fully exposed.
We are a little too apt to pride ourselves on our material growth, and to overlook the quality in the quantity of our population. Thirty millions of people in the United Kingdom - one-tenth of whom belong to London proper - make a very pretty figure in returns and official documents, until they come to be carefully sifted and examined. Taken in the bulk, with a lofty statistical disregard of minds and souls, they show an undoubted advance in capital and prosperity. Taken in detail, in a kind of house-to-house visitation, they show that the spreading limbs of a great city may be healthy and vigorous, while its heart may gradually become more choked up and decayed.
A vast deal of life that skulks or struggles in London is only familiar to the hard-working clergy, certain medical practitioners, and a few parochial officers. It burrows in holes and corners, at the back of busy thoroughfares, where few know of its existence, or care to follow it. The largest and most painstaking directories pass it by; writers upon London reject it as too mean, too repulsive, or too obscure; and novelists, when they condescend to touch it, for the sake of obtaining contrasts, often paint it in the colours of imagination, rather than in the hard outlines of fact. Its records, if truthfully given, have little romance, little beauty, and little variety. Poverty, ignorance, dirt, immorality, crime, are the five great divisions of its history. Immovability, love of place, a determination to huddle together, are some of its chief characteristics; and the growth of many courts and alleys, disgraceful to humanity, is the sure result. Whatever is demanded in London, whether in defiance of law or public decency, is promptly supplied; and ill-constructed, ill-ventilated lurking nests of dwellings exist in every quarter of the metropolis, in obedience to this rule of trade.
Those who wish to search London for gross examples of overcrowded dwellings may find them in the centre, or in any one of the four outskirts. Soho, St. James's, Westminster, and St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, can lay no claim to purity in this respect; and that part of Westminster known as Tothill Fields is notoriously one of the greatest offenders. In the west there is Knightsbridge, rendered filthy and immoral by the presence of its large military barracks, with Chelsea, and Brentford; in the south there are Lambeth, Walworth, embracing Lock's Fields, and the Borough, with its notorious Kent Street; in the north there is Agar Town, built on a swamp, and running down to the canal in every stage of dirt and decay, with Somers' Town, Kentish Town, and Camden Town, each contributing its share to the general mass of misery; and in the east there are St. George's, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, and overgrown Shoreditch. A melancholy list like this could be filled up for pages by any one familiar with the back streets of London. I have not touched upon the corners of Clerkenwell, of "merry Islington," and a dozen other districts; and I have purposely omitted St. Giles's and Saffron Hill, because they no longer represent the worst parts of London. I have merely taken a broad glance round the metropolis, to show that overcrowding amongst the poor, with all its attendant evils, is not peculiar to any particular parish or district.
The features of this huddling together vary slightly in different neighbourhoods, being governed, in some degree, by the character of the houses. In neighbourhoods that have "seen better days" - where family mansions that were once inhabited by city merchants, or the leading clerks and managers in banks or offices, have sunk gradually through all the different grades of lodging-houses, "classical and commercial" schools, down to workshops for cabinet-makers, turners, or ginger-beer brewers - the overcrowding takes the form of living in what are called "tenements." The old mansion, faded and dilapidated, with its garden cut off, it may be, for a skittle-ground or a factory, is let out to a dozen or fifteen families, according to the number of its rooms. Its broad staircase, broken, shattered, and muddy, is always open to the street; and its long, narrow windows are patched with paper. Its broad closets and store-chambers are now filled with ragged children, who share their rough beds with coals, coke, wood, and a few cooking utensils. Its dark wainscotings, scratched and chipped, are hung with damp yellow clothes, that are always "in the wash;" its passages are often strewn with oyster-shells and broken tobacco-pipes; and its fore-court is filled with ashes, one or two rusty, broken saucepans, like old hats, and sometimes with a dead cat, - the playthings of the crowd of dirty children, who roIl about on its hard, black earth. The iron railings that once closed it in from the thoroughfare have been long torn away, stolen, destroyed, sold; and all that remains of the low wall in which they were fixed may be a few rotten, jagged bricks standing on one side. I can find scores of such houses - containing forty, fifty, or even sixty human beings, surrounded by neighbourhoods crowded with gas factories, cooperages, and different workshops, or pierced by the dark arches of metropolitan railways - that stand within two miles of the Bank of England, and that once were looked upon as pleasant country retreats!
Dropping, however, this description of Ragged London, drawn from memory, let us go out into the ragged streets, and ragged houses, and see what the ragged people are doing in January, 1861. We will begin with Ragged London in the centre.
Hollingshead begins with Clerkenwell and the City Borders but we'll stay in the Tower Hamlets area and skip straight to:-
 Extract from a report in the Morning Star, January 18, 1861. - "Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in thc mctropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by. On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers' shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End - a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o'clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers' shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms."