How many persons in London, Central or West, amongst those who have heard of "Wapping," or who have passed through its leading Thames-side thoroughfares, are aware that one of its oldest portions has been known for many years by the name of "The Island." An island, in sooth, there exists, but one not formed by a convulsion of nature, but by the artificial handiwork of man. The formation of the London Docks several years ago displaced a thickly-populated district running between East Smithfield and on and beyond the foot of Leman-street on the one side, and bounded by the straight line of Hermitage-street, parallel with High-street and the River Thames, on the other. Between the two dock-gates that open into the river, there is an extent of inhabited territory extending about a quarter of a mile in length, and less than half that in breadth.
This singular spot of London East is an artificial island, and, comprised within its space, it exhibits the two extremes of great commercial wealth and importance, and the lowest phases of human suffering and indigence.
Wapping Island is entered from the City by two inlets, one leading by the side of the Tower, and the other through Nightingale-lane.
Passing over the dock-gates, the street to the right is the main thoroughfare, and is known as the High-street; the principal one to the left is Great Hermitage-street, as a tablet tells on a corner house dating from 1726. Once upon the island, a sanitary tour of two or three hours in duration will unfold a microcosm of social life to the daring visitor so multiform in character that he can scarcely hope often to meet with it again in the same compass. On the river-side are the large shipping wharfs, with their Babel of noise, their din of cranks, cranes, and hydraulic lifts. The long street is lined with hosts of jabbering carmen, grumbling cabbies, touting porters, and provoked policemen, who are vainly appealed to, and who are as vainly appealing in turn to obstinate obstructives to "Move on, I tell ye," - realising to the mind the Irish taxman's vow of vengeances.
"I call'd three times before, and
I've found I've call'd in vain;
By the Hokey, you will rue it
If I have to call again."
Foreigners in numbers are passing us by; refugee French and German, with their luggage, an inexpressible look of anxiety being marked in their faces; numbers of native-born British and alien passengers are hurrying "outward bound." Leaving the exciting scene, where so many sorrows, joys, and feverish expectations are surging, we dive into one of the dismal courts that connect the two before-mentioned thoroughfares. There are heaviness and gloom around us. We move on notwithstanding in the thick unwholesome atmosphere, by the light of one glimmering lamp which lights the entry to this dismal court. There are open doors on each side of us, and damp, grimy walls. There are open channels and open sinks at our feet, and odours inhuman and horrible. Our outstretched hands in experiment can nearly touch the hovel fronts on either side, and infants' screams and mothers' bewailings are ringing in our ears. Our presence soon brings around us many forms, and our inquiries tell of our supposed mission. Civility, communicativeness, and supplication make up the epitomised tale at the threshold, but the embraced invitations to enter reveal pictures of human pain and tribulation that Dante might have included. Three types, made to the image of God, inhabit the room we have entered, - a father, in the last stage of consumption, and two daughters nearly marriageable, with hardly sufficient rotting clothing "to cover their shame." The rags that hang around their attenuated frames flutter in stripes against their naked legs. They have no stool or chair upon which they can sit. Their father occupies the only stool in the room. They have no employment by which they can earn even a pittance; they are at home, starving on a half-chance meal a day, and hiding their raggedness from the world. The walls are bare; there is one bed in the room, and a bundle of dirty rags are upon it; but we doubt if the most sympathetic of the broker fraternity were to insist upon a bill of sale, one half-crown would, or could, be realised. The dying father will shortly follow the dead mother; and when the parish coffin incloses his wasted form, and a pauper grave closes above him what shall be his daughters' lot?
There are voices and visitors on the creaking stairs; hands are laid upon our shoulders, and we follow to the other side of the court. Here misery is not so apparent, nor is the hunger glare so observable; yet sorrow and suffering, sickness, and incurable maladies reign, and will have no ending save in death. "Come here, sir, please; look at the sorrow that God has pleased to inflict upon us. Look at my poor boy, Johnny," stripping the bed-clothes down, and baring the limbs of a crouched skeleton in the bed.
We withhold description. It was a sore family trial, in sooth; in addition to the other severe trials of the household, the father had worked but little for thirteen weeks. There were some young children in the room, and the mother had sufficient to attend to in the caring for them, and the poor paralytic. The thick, close air of the room would kill a giant who was not inured to such an atmosphere; it must be by some of the inscrutable designs of Providence that the back is fitted for the burden. We left after hearing a narrative that might well excite wonder and sympathy in a callous heart, and help to furnish a key to unlock the mysteries of some of our social problems.
Where next? We are ushered into a small back room. The tenant is a young woman, whose husband is at sea. He is gone for months. She may hear from him soon, or she may never hear. In the meantime she must live. She is making canvas sacks, or sacking, and covers, for a firm near to St. Paul's. Were she to work sixteen consecutive hours, she might earn eightpence; but some days, through other home duties, her earnings are from fourpence to sixpence. Think of it, English ladies, ye whose generous sympathies are at present with the victims of a wicked war; think of your sisters in the swamps of Wapping, where fever, small-pox, scarlatina, measels, and other deadly diseases are making havoc, fraught with peril, too, for the future of our country! There is a scope at home for Christian benevolence; there are battle-fields in London where ambulances would not be out of place.
Pass we on again, and up another narrow and rickety staircase: more fever and small-pox, more rags and wretchedness. We fancy by the soft Celtic brogue, and peculiar and idiomatic expressions that fall upon upon our ears that we are within a Munster peasant's cabin. The Munster accent is here, but not the mud walls. The "mavrone," the winasthrue," the "ullagone," break out in sobs, and blend into each other in rapid succession. And "yer honour" has to listen to tales that would break the heart of a lump of granite. The endearing "alanna" and the expressive "aroon" are uttered by the Celtic mother, and little Mike in the corner is coaxed into quietness. Of a verity we are among the O'Donovans, the Driscolls, the Dempseys, and Cavanaghs, of the Sister island; but instead of the thatched cabin of Skibbereen or Macroom, with its peat fire, with its hook and suspended pot, we stand in a London room about 8 ft. by 6 ft., or scarcely more in appearance. There are few coals, or rather cinders, in the grate, and with the boxes, beds, and other trumpery, there is scarcely a passage free from the door to the fireplace. Yet within the confines of this narrow pest-room, a family of six "live, move, and have their being."
Fever and small-pox rage "next door, and next door, and over the way, and next door to that, and further down." This is the language we are told it in, and the corroborative evidence is our own eyes, and the replies of many persons whom we ask. There are snowdrifts and icebergs upon the river, and there are delays in the arrival of the screw colliers, and there are poor coal-heavers in this court who have earned but little for weeks. The room we have just left is rented by one of them. "The good Sisters of Mercy and Puseyites of -- have been very kind, and they do all they can for us." This acknowledgment comes from more than one woman whom we question. Honour to those whom honour is due.
Let us sum up at this point of our narrative the conditions in the first alley we entered. The nightside aspect of the court is a "cut-throat" one; the daylight view is but little better. The backyards are receptacles, in most instances, for all sorts of filth and refuse; the old barrels or vessels that contain the supply of water are thickly coated on the sides with slime, and there is an undisturbed deposit of mud at the bottom. There are ashes and night-soil on the flags in front, there is dirt within the threshold, and there is but little decency apparent anywhere. The husbands and wives, in many instances, whether much or little is earned, drink. The men who mostly work on the river, or by the river, work hard when at it, for they have to work uncertain hours. The majority of the woemn and children are in rags, and seldom above the reach of starvation. Wife-beating, oaths, Billingsgate, drunkenness, contagion, and death would make up the bulletin; and yet, side by side, and in the midst of this dreadful carnival, there are little cases of purity, of womanhood, and manhood, that help to relieve the dark picture.
Places and neighbourhoods like those of which we are speaking, and which we will presently notice, require instant parochial and Government inspection. The living, perforce, are huddled among the dying and the already dead, and are soon to be victims. Local mortuary-houses are an actual necessity, that contamination and contagion may be cut off. However harsh the removal may seem, it must be insisted on, and the nursing and "waking" of the contagious dead put an end to. Daily inspection is a necessity.
Another court visited is nearly a second edition of the first. It enjoys no thorough ventilation: it is one of those places that our grandsires were want to term a "turn-again lane." Small-pox, and sickness, and want are here; and children, and tumult, and rags in abundance. The visitor is scanned, and walked around, and looked up at, and "interviewed," before he has time to put a question. The invitations to walk in, and "see for yourself," are many' and once in, there is little attempt indeed at cloaking the stark, staring truths that are visible in every room. We shall not tire our readers with pictures of poverty, many of which possess a uniform sameness in outline, but whose depths are of ever-varying hues, deeper, darker, deadlier. In the house to our right three in family are stretched in the small-pox; in that below, near the corner, the only hope of the family is waiting to be coffined. He is waked, as is the custom of his country, and two dips are burning on a deal table near his head. A little crucifix is laid on the heart of the corpse; and, as we wait, neighbouring women, "his own kith and kin," and of his own province, are dropping in to the little room. The new-made widow and heart-broken wife, who has been out nearly all the day, preparing for the funeral, has come in. The burial society of which her poor husband had been a member for years, has disputed her claims. They have told her her husband was in arrear, and his benefit is forfeited, and that if they would like to exercise their right by rule, they might not give her one penny, but taking compassion upon her, and in view of her late husband having been a good-paying member once, they would allow her a moiety. It is a suspicious affair, and wants light. The collector knew for several weeks that the poor man was dying: and in pursuance of advice, avoided calling for a number of weeks for the money, so as to let the poor man run out of benefit by his lapse of payment. This inhuman dodge is often practised.
In the funereal gloom, and stumbling over heaps of snow, we take our leave. A body of watermen and two of the Thames Police emerge from one of those narrow river gorges known as "water-stairs." A stretcher is borne on the shoulders of four of the party, and the human freight they carry is a swollen, dripping, and ghastly corpse. The dishevelled hair hangs adown between the two foremost handles of the stretcher, and the upturned face hangs back unsupported. It was the face of a young woman of perhaps five-and-twenty, and she must have been for some days in the water. Enough!
We leave "the Island" unbroken in its dismal outer silence, save by the odd shout of some drunken seaman staggering towards his lodging, followed at a safe distance by a solitary constable. Within the heart of that island there are, however, wakeful lamentations; - death, disease, want, and many unutterable miseries.
To exhibit the wounds, ulcers, and social abscesses of our lowest strata of domestic life, is to do little more than to proclaim our sanitary wants. The honest and simple exposition of the one is the natural and certain evolution of the other. To give back to man the primitive health that nature intended him to enjoy, - to accomplish this would be an emprise worthy of the world's highest prize. We dare to add that, in this age of all-conquering science, the solution of the difficulty and the completement of the task ought not to be remote.
The state of Wapping.
From the Builder (21 January 1871)
THE editor of an East-end newspaper attempts to throw discredit on the statements made in our recent notice of Wapping. He does not disprove any of the particulars, but falls back upon the very safe and handy plea of charging us with exaggeration. He would point out that not very distant from our own office, viz., Drury-lane, we could find as vile and foul spots for description as in Wapping. Our contemporary is young in London journalism, and unread, or he would know that the districts he alludes to have long since been exposed in these pages; and that long before the daily papers gave attention to such subjects, the Builder was labouring earnestly to make known the condition of London. He would better show his fitness for the position he holds by furthering our endeavours than by the time-serving and injurious course he takes.
We print part of a letter from an independent witness, addressed to the editor of the Standard, who had reprinted some passages from our article, and sensibly commented on them:-
"Your article in yesterday's paper, on the state of disease and destitution amongst the poor in Wapping is attracting a great deal of notice; but in the case of every comment I have have heard made, the good-natured, easy-going people say, as no doubt they wish - 'It can't be quite true; it must be an exaggerated account!'
I beg to state, as an independent witness, that it is within the truth. I could lead your reviewer to scenes exceeding any he has described.
I have been so struck with the awful state of poverty, ignorance, and vice, in this part of London, that for the past fourteen months I have spent all my spare time, usually four days a week, in works of charity amongst the poor of this very locality; returning from time to time amongst my friends. I have represented to them the necessities of the place, and they have been most liberal in supplying me with money and clothing to distribute amongst the poor - most liberal, as regards their power of giving; but, of course, the amount thus privately collected has not been sufficient for the giant wants of a huge population. Besides the benefits thus distributed, I have opened a free day-school for the poor little children. This during the past year has been very well attended, and at Christmas I was able to give to each child some article of clothing - mostly boots, for the poor little children are, as a rule, barefooted. I am glad to say that, owing to the care and gentle teaching of our very excellent master and mistress, these poor outcast children are being rapidly civilised and tamed. We also have a nightschool for men and big lads; the average attendance is about 100 a night . . . . I have only to add, that I shall be most happy to act as steward of the bounty of any whose hearts have been touched by your article, and that cheques can be paid to the account of the St. Agatha's Mission Fund, at Messrs. Hoare's, Fleet-street.
ROBERT LINKLATER, M.A.
Perhaps, after a perusal of the above, and a visit to some of the courts of Wapping Island, our East-end contemporary may feel regret for having penned his vulgar and vicious article.
An article in the East London Observer contrasts very favourably with that to which we have been referring. At the close the writer says, - "None, we imagine, will be bold enough to dispute the substantial correctness of the general picture of many of the homes of the poor, - not, alas! in Wapping Island only, but in all parts of the metropolis, - within a stone's throw of our principal streets and squares, and even of the seat of the Imperial legislature. And what can be done in the way of remedy? The St. George's vestry have never shown themselves indifferent to sanitary considerations, and it will not fail to be noted that some of the evils the Builder details are directly due to the action of the sanitary authorities. The vestry have, under a magistrate's order, obtained the closing of the houses in Plough-alley, as a measure of sanitary necessity; and what follows? The fever-stricken inhabitants crowd adjacent alleys. Is the remedy better than the disease, or worse? Let it be well noted, also, that the inhabitants of Wapping Island are perhaps exceptionally well off for labouring people. They are nearly all workers on the river, ballast-getters and ballast-heavers, coalheavers or coalwhippes, or porters at the waterside warehouses, - men whose toil is about the hardest, but whose pay is also about the best, of London labourers. It is precarious, and as it comes it goes; but there is more room for providence in Wapping island than in most of our courts and alleys."