St. George's in the East

PASSING from Whitechapel towards the river into the Commercial Road, you find the thoroughfare one of the broadest in London, with stone tram-ways for waggon traffic laid down on each side as far as Blackwall. This main road, viewed at any hour, shows little evidence of the crowded population who huddle together behind the houses, especially on the river-side. The difference in the superficial appearance of this road, compared with Whitechapel, may be accounted for by the fact that it is pierced by very few courts and alleys, strictly so called, the small dwellings being invariably arranged in streets. There are thousands of these streets spread over Stepney, Limehouse, Shadwell, St. George's, and Mile End, having such a family likeness that the description of one in its main features will serve for them all. Their houses look flat and depressed, being only one story high, and they generally contain two small rooms on the ground floor, two more above, with a very close little yard, seldom larger than one of the rooms. When they are new, clean, and in the possession of their original tenants, they shelter a hard-working class, chiefly connected with the shipping trade and the different factories in the east; and when they fall a few degrees in the scale of comfort and respectability, they follow the example of more wealthy neighbourhoods and admit a lower colony of tenants. From being occupied by struggling householders they sink gradually through all the phases of lodging-letting until they are reduced to the condition of being divided into tenements. Each room is then taken by a different family; the doorstep is seldom cleaned; the passage and stairs belong to everybody, and are looked after by nobody; the little yard becomes choked up with dust and filth; the inspector of nuisances is openly defied if he ever goes near the place, and the unfortunate street is doomed; it grows more black and more ragged every day; a yellow mist always seems to hang over it, through which its unsightly inhabitants may be dimly seen from the main thoroughfare into which it runs; ignorant policemen begin to look suspiciously upon it, and overrated "detectives" put it down as a harbour for thieves. It gets an ill-name, like an unlucky dog, and is hanged by all except the patient district visitors.

It is unnecessary for any writer to go over all the low streets of a particular district to give the public a faint picture of their chief characteristics, and he will do his duty if he carefully selects that representative thoroughfare which seems to him to present most of the features he wishes to depict. Such a representative hole and corner I believe I have found in Star Street, in the Christ Church division of St. George's in the East, a locality of forty-three acres, with a population of 13,300, untiringly watched over by the Rev. G. H. M'Gill.

Star Street is a narrow avenue, leading out of the Commercial Road towards the river, the entrance to which is half blocked up with fruit-stalls, crossing-sweepers, and loiterers. Unlike most of its neighbours, it hangs out every sign of overcrowding for the most careless or hurried passer-by to look at, and it contains, perhaps, within an equal area, more hard-working, would-be-honest strugglers for dear life than any similar street in the same district. Its road is black and muddy, half filled with small pools of inky water, in which stand a number of trucks and barrows belonging to the poorest class of costermongers. The end is nearly blocked up with a public-house, which seems to thrive in the very citadel of want. At some of the low dirty doors wet baskets are standing half full of a common fish called "dabs;" in some of the wretched parlour windows, under sickly yellow curtains, a few rotten oranges are displayed on an old shutter for sale; another miserable front parlour seems to have been scooped out so as to form something like a shop, in which a few coals are thrown down in one corner as a sign of trade; another parlour has been turned into a cat's-meat store, and there is one of those small chandler's-shops where nearly everything is sold, and "weekly payments" are taken, which invariably flourish in such neighbourhoods.

I went down this thoroughfare with the chief clergyman of the district, and we were immediately surrounded by poor, thin women, in scanty dresses, representing every variety of dirt and poverty. They have nothing to pawn, nothing to take to the marine-store dealers. Their husbands can get no work for the present at the docks [1], and they can get little or no needlework from the cheap clothiers in the neighbourhood. Their standard of living is so low that a few days of compulsory idleness brings them to the brink of starvation. One has a story to tell of fever and sickness, another of bread refused by the poor-law authorities on some technicality, another begs to be visited without delay, and a dozen others present letters of recommendation for relief from the funds at the disposal of the clergyman. The same question seems always to bring the same melancholy answer;-

"How many children have you?"

"Eight, sir."

"What's your husband?"

"A dock labourer."

"How long has he been out of work?"

"Not done a stroke for thirteen weeks."

"Come to me, at the parsonage, at three."

We go into some of the houses to inspect the misery. The ground floor of one is occupied by a sweep. A short broom sticks out over the door. The front parlour contains two women, half covered with soot. A bed, as black as the women, stands in one corner, in which an infant is sleeping, with its little face looking pale, even under the dirt, and its head lying lower than its legs. Two other young children are playing on the black floor in front of the little glow- worm of a fire, eating what is literally bread and soot. Six other children, belonging to the same parents, are playing somewhere about in the inky puddles; and even this family only represents half the population of the small house. The rooms may be ten feet square - certainly not more [2] - and the rent averages about two shillings a room. The back parlour is also rented by the sweep, and it contains nothing but a mountain of soot - the store resulting from several weeks' work - an empty birdcage, and a fluttering green rag of a window-blind. Upstairs, in one room, is a street hawker, with a wife and five children, and in another room is a carpenter, also with a wife and five children. The latter has the same old painful story to tell of no work and no pay. He is a strong, healthy man, nearly fifty years of age, respectable in appearance, and civil in address. He is trying to still his evident hunger with a little weak tea, probably made from boiled tea-leaves, which his wife has begged from some family for whom she works. A few small lumps of precious bread are floating in the tea, and a hungry child is looking over the edge of the table at the remains of a small coarse loaf. Not a crumb is wasted of the scanty store; for the blank days of unproductive idleness may not be near their end, and the hateful workhouse must be kept at arm's length. The other children, if not in the ragged or national schools, are rolling anywhere about the streets, like all other children of the very poor, in every back alley of the town. When they are gathered together at night - if they ever are so gathered - the roof of this stunted dwelling will cover twenty-five inmates. Other houses in the same poor street - not larger, not cleaner - shelter twenty-two and twenty-one inmates respectively; and thirteen lodgers for one house seems to be a very common number. Two of the rooms have eleven inmates, while one particular room has nine, and another room has nine also. The general result seems to be - according to a local census taken by the Rev. Mr. M'Gill, on December 19, 1860 - that in two hundred and thirty-five small rooms there is, self-crammed, a growing, breeding population of three hundred and forty-four adults and three hundred and fifty-seven children, making a total of seven hundred and one. A few of these unfortunates have been struck off the list since this melancholy account was taken; some by exhaustion, or long-settled disease, brought to an end by want. One labourer gave in, under a low fever, a few hours before we visited the street, and his dead body was stretched upon the only bed in the dark room, covered with a borrowed white sheet. Round the fire was a crowd of weeping women, and amongst them the widow, with two of the dead man's moaning children stricken with the same fever. Wretched as these people were, they would struggle to bury the dead body without assistance from the parish, for there is nothing the poor have such a horror of as a pauper's funeral. No sooner have we left this abode of misery than we are almost dragged over to another, where a mere girl is suddenly left a widow with two helpless infants. Her husband was a dock labourer, twice as old as herself, and he died of asthma. He hung about the docks in the keen weather, day after day, waiting for ships that never came, and the afternoon before he came home wet, miserable, and hungry, took to his scanty bed, and never left it again. Death is bitter enough at all times, and in all places, but it is a hundred-fold more bitter where those who are left are haunted by the dreadful feeling that a few pence would have kept the body and soul together if they could only have been found.

There are other streets in this district, such as Devonshire Street and Hungerford Street in the immediate neighbourhood, which are as full of hunger, dirt, and social degradation as Star Street - my representative thoroughfare. They have all been in the same condition for years, and they show little prospect of material improvement. They contain no thieves, and no threepenny lodging-houses, and are tolerably free from houses of ill-fame. It is a curious social fact that when a particular street reaches a certain depth of poverty it becomes purified from its vice; for though thieves and prostitutes do not become converted in a period of scarcity, they invariably shift their quarters. The lower industrial occupations in the general locality I have been dealing with may be broadly classed as dock-work, needle-work, coal-whipping, and street hawking. The labouring population are independent and honest, and no alms are ever applied for at a period of full labour. The district is industriously "worked" by the clergy and their assistants. The ragged and national schools, some of them fitted up under railway arches, collect and educate about a thousand children of both sexes - boys, girls, and infants. These schools are supported by government to the extent of 290l. (I take the figures of 1860), by the pence of the children to the extent of 300l., and by local subscriptions to the amount of 150l. more. A movement is on foot to enlarge and improve the old Middlesex Society's National Schools in Cannon Street Road, founded in 1781, which are far behind the pressing wants of the locality. There is a blanket-and-rug society, instituted for the purpose of giving (not lending) these necessaries to the poor, and every year one-fourth of the stock distributed has to be renewed from fair wear and tear. Instances where this property has been pawned, even in periods of great want and suffering, are very rare. There is a small Dorcas society, which dispenses about 261. a year, and which only stops here for want of funds. There is no public soup-kitchen, but the clergy distribute bread, coals, and grocery, as far as their means go; and the Rev. Mr. M'Gill receives assistance every year from the Marquis of Westminster, for these and other parochial purposes, to the extent of 100l.

The clerical work seems very heavy, as in 1860 there were six hundred and eleven baptisms, one hundred and thirty-five marriages, and five hundred and twenty churchings; and the visiting work, divided amongst twenty-one local visitors, has reached four hundred and fifty-three cases of poverty and sickness in one day during January, 1861. It is proper to mention here that the incumbent is assisted in this part of his labours, by the Metropolitan District Visiting Association, with an annual donation of 1001.

Amongst all this charity and, benevolent work there is one healthy example of self-help in the Christ Church Penny Bank, the oldest institution of its kind in London. Its total receipts in 1860 were about 9441., and its total repayments about 945l. It brought over a balance from the former year of about 3881., and it begins the present year with a balance of about 3871. The detailed accounts for 1860 show that more money was paid in during the winter and autumn than during the spring and summer, and the heaviest withdrawal was made in December.

This is hardly the place to dwell upon certain notorious inequalities in the metropolitan poor-rates; but I cannot close this chapter without referring to the different assessments of the two great docks in the quarter I have been dealing with. The London Dock Company, which usually employs about one thousand five hundred of the men who are now thrown upon the parish or upon chance relief, paid 19,000l. as its share of the poor-rate in 1869; and the St. Katharine Dock Company, which usually employs about one thousand similar labourers, only paid 720l. in the same year. The two properties are only divided by a lane which a man can almost leap over; but the first has the misfortune to stand in part of Shadwell, St. George's, Wapping, and Aldgate, while the last has covered the whole of an extinct parish, and has pushed the poor upon its neighbour's shoulders.

The latest parochial statistics in St. George's in the East (for the week ending January 19, 1861) show that the poor-law guardians relieved 3,720 out of an estimated population of 60,000, and issued some 600 summonses for the last quarter's rates.

The whole area of the parish is three quarters of a mile long, by three quarters of a mile broad.

[1] January, 1861.

[2] Average height, eight feet five inches; length, nine feet six inches; width, nine feet six inches.