The back of Whitechapel

IF I were writing a partially fancy description of the poverty and wretchedness in a particular district, I should mix the aspects of one street with the aspects of another, and hide my real locality under a very thin veil. I should call Whitechapel by its more appropriate name of Blackchapel, and play with the East of London under the title of St. George's-in-the-Dirt. As this book, however, is intended to be a faithful chronicle of what I have seen, what the local clergy and others see every day, and almost every hour, and what everyone else may see in a week's walk about the back streets of London, I give up effect for the sake of truthfulness, and strive to become a plain, matter-of-fact guide.

There are many different degrees of social degradation and unavoidable poverty, even in the east. Whitechapel, properly so called, may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter; but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to old Whitechapel Church, a thoroughfare, in some parts, like the high street of an old-fashioned country town, you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues, leading to thousands of closely-packed nests, full to overflowing with dirt, and misery, and rags. Many living signs of the inner life behind the busy shops are always oozing out on to the pavements and into the gutters; for all children in low neighbourhoods that are not taken in by the ragged and other charity schools are always living in the streets: they eat in the streets what little they get to eat, they play in the streets in all weathers, and sometimes they have to sleep in the streets. Their fathers and mothers mope in cellars or garrets; their grandfathers or grandmothers huddle and die in the same miserable dustbins (for families, even unto the third and fourth generation, have often to keep together in these places), but the children dart about the roads with naked, muddy feet; slink into corners to play with oyster-shells and pieces of broken china, or are found tossing halfpennies under the arches of a railway. The local clergy, those who really throw themselves heart and soul into the labour of educating these outcasts, are daily pained by seeing one or more drop through into the great pit of crime; and by feeling that ragged schools are often of little good unless they can give food as well as instruction, and offer the children some kind of rude probationary home. At the George Yard Ragged School, Whitechapel, conducted by the Rev. Mr. Thornton, and personally superintended by Mr. Holland, they have turned part of an old distillery into one of the most useful and active institutions of this kind in the metropolis, and they are already struggling with these and other difficulties. The secretary, Mr. Lewis, writing January 15, 1861, says:-

"We have lately had a number of boys in a most distressing state - homeless, hungry, and almost naked. The teachers and friends have done what they could to help them, and can do no more. Those who teach the "ragged band" have feeling hearts, and it is painful to lie in one's own bed and feel that there are a number of poor boys wanting even shelter these bitter nights. Should we send them away and they perish in the streets, at our doors certainly would their deaths lie. We have paid for their lodgings, at various lodging-houses, night after night; but now with this severe weather, and the mass of distress it has brought around us, matters have come to such a pass we are compelled to ask the public to lend us a helping hand in our extremity. We have taken a place to shelter them in, and earnestly ask for help to go on. Old boots and shoes, old clothes, old rugs or blankets, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, &c., will be most acceptable. To send these helpless ones adrift is, apart from anything else, to make thieves of them."

They have gathered some four hundred children, of all ages, and of both sexes; and they give them every encouragement to consider the school as their home. They provide a meal of rice on one day, a meal of bread on another, and a meal of soup, if they can, on the third day; and they have taken eight poor castaways - nobody's children - "into the house," and are endeavouring to train them into honest working boys. The stories of destitution, cruelty, and desertion which these outcasts have to tell are more harrowing than a thousand tragedies. One has lost all traces of his parents, another is a street beggar's orphan, and another owns no parent but a drunken prostitute, who kicked him, swore at him, stabbed him in the cheek, and left a scar which he will carry to his grave. He can now find no traces of such a mother, except in the cruel mark upon his face; and is more happy, perhaps, in calling his schoolmaster father than he ever was before in his life.

The conductors of this school are anxious to fit up some kind of rough sleeping-loft for the children. They dread to let them go out into the black courts and alleys, knowing what dirt and brutality often await them. It requires very little diving behind the houses on either side of the Whitechapel main road to account for this feeling on the part of the ragged-school managers. Within a few yards of this refuge is New Court, a nest of thieves, filled with thick-lipped, broad-featured, rough-haired, ragged women, and hulking leering men, who stand in knots, tossing for pennies, or lean against the walls at the entrances of the low courts. The houses present every conceivable aspect of filth and wretchedness; the broken windows are plastered with paper, which rises and falls when the doors of the rooms are opened: the staircases always look upon the court, as there is seldom any street door, and they are steep, winding, and covered with blocks of hard mud. The faces that peer out of the narrow windows are yellow and repulsive; some are the faces of Jews, some of Irishwomen, and some of sickly-looking infants. The ashes lie in front of the houses; the drainage is thrown out of the windows to swell the heap; and the public privy is like a sentry-box stuck against the pump in a corner of the court. There may be as many families as there are rooms, cellars, and cupboards in a single house; forty people, perhaps, huddled together in a small dwelling; and if there is not a mixture of different families in one room it is due to the ceaseless vigilance of the sanitary officer, Inspector Price, in carrying out the Lodging-Houses Act. The lowest order of Irish, when they get an opportunity, will take a room and sub-let it to as many families as the floor will hold. Inkhorn Court is a fair sample of an Irish colony; the houses are three stories high, and there is not a corner unoccupied. Tewkesbury Buildings is a colony of Dutch Jews, and, if anything, they are a little cleaner than their Christian neighbours. George Yard is an English colony, numbering about a hundred families; and Wentworth Street, Crown Court, and Castle Alley have the same character. Their inhabitants are chiefly dock labourers, and their families a class who form one-half of the population of this district. A correspondent, Mr. Wilford, of Catherine Street East, writing January 10, 1861, says:- "The dock labourers consist of a mixed class of people - English, Irish, Scotch, Germans, and a few French, and others. There are employed at times as many as 20,000 to 25,000 labourers in the five docks, who are extra men, and about 3,000 or 4,000 permanent men; and at the wharves below London Bridge there are at times as many as 3,000 men employed, making a total of upwards of 30,000 men employed in the docks and wharves below bridge. lt is thought at the present time that there are not more than 4,000 or 6,000 who are at work, owing to the adverse winds and the severe frost. The average earnings of thousands of these poor fellows is not more than 7s. 6d. per week all the year round, so that when there is a great stagnation in the shipping trade, many thousands are almost starved to death. It is a lamentable fact that such is tlme case at the present time." The other half of the inhabitants in these streets is made up of thieves, costermongers, and stall-keepers, professional beggars, rag-dealers, brokers and small tradesmen.

In one court I saw a singular blind labourer, who was out of work in consequence of the frost. He got his living by reading the Bible in the street, feeling the raised letters with his hand, and he complained that he could do nothing now because "the touch was cold." He staggered over the mud heaps with a thin stick, and disappeared in the dark, cellar-like lower room of a ragged-school refuge for outcasts. In some of these repulsive courts the inhabitants cling to a rude love of flowers, and many an unsightly window-ledge is fitted up to resemble a garden enclosure, with miniature railings and gates.

The rents drawn for the wretched apartments in these courts vary from 4s. to 9d. a week, the average being about 2s. a week. This rental often pays for the hire of "furniture," consisting of a round table, white with age, a couple of bare wooden chairs, a fender and poker, often, unfortunately, not wanted except when the parish coals are being sparingly burnt; a turn-up bedstead, with a rustling bag of straw for a bed, and a very dirty scanty coverlet. The rent for this accommodation is collected painfully, punctually, and incessantly by small instalments; and unpromising as this class of property looks to the superficial observer, thriving tradesmen are found to "farm" it in the neighbourhood as middlemen, and in some cases it belongs to important local residents. The Jews have bought a little of it up of late years, perhaps because their colony in this quarter is slowly increasing. The Jewish poor are fewer and better provided for than our poor, and the applications for relief are never made except in cases of extreme distress. They are wonderfully independent and self-supporting, and keep up the ceremonies of their nation under the most adverse circumstances. In a very black miserable hut in Castle Alley, a poor Jewess was burning the "twelvemonth's lamp" for her deceased mother, although it was only a glimmering wick in a saucer full of rank oil.

The female population in these courts and alleys, as usual, forms the greatest social difficulty to be dealt with. Their husbands may be dock labourers, earning, when employed, if on the "permanent list," 3s. a day - if on the "casual list," only 2s. 6d. a day; their children, after an education in the streets or the ragged schools, may be drafted off into lucifer-match or brush factories, where cheap and juvenile labour is in much demand; but for the woman, and the grown up daughters, although it may be necessary for them to help in maintaining the poor household, there is nothing but ill-paid needlework, which they may never have learnt. Domestic servitude in this neighbourhood, with a few exceptions, is not to be coveted, as there is little more, for the local-bred servant, than a choice of low gin-shops, or lower coffee-houses. The best paid occupation appears to be prostitution, and it is a melancholy fact that a nest of bad houses in Angel Alley, supported chiefly by the farmers' men who bring the hay and straw to Whitechapel market twice a week, are the cleanest-looking dwellings in the district. The windows have tolerably neat green blinds, the doors have brass plates, and inside the houses there is comparative comfort, if not plenty. While the wretched virtuous population are starving in black holes, or creeping out in the hour of their wildest prosperity to purchase sixpennyworth of refuse meat from the stall opposite the greasy, sawdusty shambles, the inhabitants of this court of vice know little, at least for a few years, of want and suffering. If their ranks are thinned by death or disease, there are always fresh recruits coming forward; and must be while there are as many houseless women as men, and nothing but low threepenny lodging-houses, where little or no distinction is made between the sexes. I heard a child in the street - a boy about eight years of age - telling another boy what a man had given his mother as the price of her shame. The boys and girls here are men and women at ten or twelve years of age.

The local clergy are painfully aware of these facts, and they have made an effort with some success to check the evils of prostitution. The indefatigable incumbent of St. Jude's - the Rev. Mr. Thornton before alluded to - with local assistance, has started a temporary refuge for females in Boar's Head Yard, Petticoat Lane, in the very heart of this melancholy district. The work of this refuge commenced in May, 1860. Since that period it appears that sixty-four young women - mostly fallen, some in danger - nearly all from the neighbourhood, have passed through the institution; of these sixteen are in situations doing well, seven have been restored to their friends, one is married, one has died, nineteen have been sent to other institutions; and of the remaining twenty some have left, with approval, to seek an honest living; some have proved failures, having left soon after admission from dislike of the discipline or other causes; and eight are now in the refuge, making the total seventy-two. This excellent institution is in some degree self-supporting, the inmates earning money by washing, mangling, and needlework. By this means the cost of each case has been kept down to about four shillings a week. The receipts from work are small, in consequence of the constant change of inmates, the institution being designed as a temporary refuge, not as a permanent home. The managers, consisting of a comnmittee of ladies, solicit female clothing, assistance in procuring more work for the inmates, and the inspection of visitors, especially ladies.