There can be no doubt that the conditions for women and children in the Victorian East End were horrific. Yet, there were many people who strove to alleviate the dangers and the sufferings that were endemic in the district, and who did all they could to try and improve the everyday lives of the women of Whitechapel.
The Hanbury Street Mission, run by the Salvation Army, was one example of a philanthropic endeavour operating in the area in the late 19th century.
A BRIDGE OF HOPE OVER AN ABYSS
But there were also many other individuals who were labouring, night and day, to bring hope to the women and girls of a district that was rapidly becoming known as “the abyss.”
One of them was Mary H. Steer (1846 – 1940) who was featured in an editorial that appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Tuesday, 30th October, 1888:-
WHAT MISS STEER IS DOING IN THE EAST OF LONDON
Less than ten years ago Bett-street, St. George’s, E., was one of the worst thoroughfares even among the network of low streets of which the Commercial-road forms the great highway.
Today it is one of the cleanest, most quiet and respectable streets of the district, through which a child or woman may pass unharmed at any hour of the day or night.
This transformation is due in part to the devoted labours of a little band of women, gathered round the person of one good woman who, some ten years ago, began her work of love among the East-end outcasts.
THE BRIDGE OF HOPE MISSION
It was in what Miss Steer herself terms “two little cupboards” that the work of the “Bridge of Hope” mission began; the women, girls, and children whom, shudderingly, Miss Steer and her first co-workers saw living among the vilest of the vile courts and lanes of evil repute where they visited, being invited to come to one of the “cupboards” and receive, together with a cheerful meal in a bright, clean room, what human love and pitiful kindness could give to them of gentle advice and of ready aid.
Thus a narrow plank was, as it were, laid across the sea of darkness beneath; innumerable weary and tottering feet have walked across it, and so successful have been the pioneers who first spanned the waters that now their “Bridge of Hope” has grown into a strong, firm structure, rising high above the turbulent floods, and drawing towards it an ever-increasing number of the weary and the heavy-laden.
As on the bridge in Addison’s “Vision of Mirza,” those who put their feet on the Bridge of Hope come out of a cloudy, mysterious region, and some, alas, fall through hidden trap-doors on their way across, and are lost sight of in the depths; but, unlike the travellers across the bridge which Mirza watched from the high hills of Bagdad, those reaching the other side do not again vanish into the misty regions of the unknown, but gain a footing in the peaceful plains of a brighter land than they have ever trod before.
NEW BUILDINGS TO BE OPENED
In the course of the present month the new Bridge of Hope buildings will be officially opened, but within its walls the good work of sheltering the perishing and the fallen is already being carried on, and night after night some wandering girls and women knock at the door, which is ever opened to one and all demanding a night’s rest and shelter.
Miss Steer’s object is threefold.
First and foremost it is and always has been her endeavour to save the children from the wretched life, which is not life, in the filthy dens constituting the “homes” of the little ones, and in this part of her work she has been very successful, for hundreds of girls, now leading useful lives as domestic servants, have been passed through her Preventive Home, situated at a little distance from the main building.
At the present moment, some sixteen girls, varying in age from five to fifteen, are in the shelter of this home; children, not a few of whom have already been in the police-courts, and all of whom have been brought out of the most abject misery and destitution.
Some of them have parents living, but those who have not are almost better off, for it not unfrequently happens that the same mother who now heartlessly and carelessly gives up her child will in a few years, when the girl is able to earn some money, compel her to come back to her, a proceeding against which there is no remedy.
But with this and other disadvantages and disappointments Miss Steer continues her work among the children with never-failing courage and energy; and surely, wherever a girl may afterwards go, the time passed in the pleasant home, sitting in a bright room, taking her meals in a decent manner, sleeping in a clean bed, being instructed in cleanliness and industry, as well as in the way in which she should go, can never be entirely forgotten.
After having been at the home for some little time, the children are drafted off to other permanent homes, from which some are emigrated, and others put out to domestic service, or taught some other occupation by which they can maintain themselves.
The second branch of the work is the “Refuge,” in which girls and women are received who are willing to turn away from their lives of folly.
Sick and worn and wretched they come, often only when on the brink of despair, but from the Bridge of Hope a tender hand is held out to them; those who are ill are cared for at the little hospital, which, though situated in a separate building, is in close connection with the central mission building; others, whose cases are such as to require hospital treatment, are taken to a hospital, and afterwards received in the refuge, where, together with others of the same class, they are kept busy with laundry work – a complete laundry with every convenience forming part of the new building – or they will in the course of time have places as domestic servants procured for them.
What the refuge is to these girls and women cannot be told in words, and only those who are acquainted with the whole pitiful history of its inmates can form a correct idea of its importance and usefulness.
A DAY INSIDE
They are accustomed to cheerful, constant industry; their day’s work begins with a short prayer in a little room specially set apart for the purpose of united “family” worship, a room which not very long ago was the bar of a notorious public-house, where a murder was committed on the exact spot where now the girls kneel down each morning and each evening, while Miss Steer, surrounded by her little staff of workers and visitors, prays in a low voice to the “Father of them all.”
The manner, by the way, in which workers are drawn to the mission, is as unique as it is admirable.
In the new building there are a number of airy; comfortably furnished bedrooms, a charming sitting-room and a dining-room, adapted to the needs of a large family.
Some of the rooms are occupied by a little staff of paid assistants – the matron of each department sleeping in a cubicle among her charges – and the remaining rooms are destined for the reception of ladies who pay a little for their board and lodging, and are at the same time willing to help in the work during their stay.
TRAINING FOR MISSIONARIES
To ladies wishing to train for missionary service no better opportunity could be offered, for here they have all the chief features of a missionary’s work: the care of the young and the sick, of the weak and the fallen, and the teaching and counselling of all who come under their care.
Nor need they confine their labours to the protégés of the mission, for it is also part of the work to visit all the courts and lanes of the immediate neighbourhood, to hold mothers meetings, to gather into the bright little mission hall any one who will come, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, as far as it is possible to do so.
OLD CLOTHES WELCOME
Old clothes, it should here be mentioned, are always hailed with delight by the ladies whose lives are spent among those who hardly know what it is to be clothed in aught but rags and tatters, and just now, with winter coming, the demand for boots, jackets, and underclothing is again very great.
THE NIGHT SHELTER
One prominent feature of the Bridge of Hope Mission is the Night Shelter, into which homeless girls and women are taken at whatever time of night they may seek admittance.
In the new building, a large room has been set apart for this purpose, where a clean, warm resting-place, warm food, and the best help and advice which experienced women can give, are extended to each and all.
Each “case” is treated individually; and none of the applicants goes away without having had a kind hand stretched out to her.
The tales of suffering and of woe poured daily into the ears of Miss Jones, the lady who is at the head of this branch of the work, are quite heartrending; but there are also many instances in which the night shelter has evidently been the means of saving girls from certain perdition.
THE GIRL FROM TUNBRIDGE
The following is only one of the numerous instances of this kind.
Some time ago a fresh young country girl who had come from Tunbridge to live as a domestic servant with a lady in London, went home for the day to see her parents.
In the evening she missed her train to town, and consequently did not get back as soon as she expected to do.
At 11 P.M., however, she was at her mistress’s door, but that door was only opened to her for her bundle of clothes to be handed out, with the remark that, since she could not be home in time, she could now go where she came from.
There the girl stood at midnight, a perfect stranger in London, and with only a few shillings in her pocket, which she dared not spend in obtaining a bed, even if she had known where to obtain one, as without it she would have no money come the morrow to pay her railway journey down home.
As she stood on the pavement, crying, and holding her bundle, a policeman came up, and to him she told her story. He advised her to put her clothes into a public-house at the corner of the street, where they would be safe, and then look out for a bed.
About 2 A.M., she knocked at the door of the night shelter; next morning her tale was verified, and she was safely seen on her way to Tunbridge.
THE RUNAWAY GIRL
Another time, early this month, the bell was rung and a middle-aged woman and a young girl presented themselves. They had both slept in the Whitechapel casual ward.
The woman had taken compassion on the girl, who said she was fatherless, motherless, and friendless, and brought her to the Bridge of Hope, “where some year and a half ago her own little daughter had been sheltered.”
Miss Jones listened to the girl’s story, but felt instinctively it was untrue, so waited till the girl would trust her.
At last it came out: “I want to tell you the truth. I have run away from home. I know that my mother is fretting her heart out for me.”
They communicated with the mother, and she came at once. “When I got your post-card, ‘Your child is safe, I I felt my heart would break with joy. With these terrible murders about, I knew it was somebody’s daughter, and I feared the next might be mine.”
THE MISSION HALL
A bright and cheerful mission hall, attached to the Bett-street premises, and which was formerly one of the ill-famed dancing-saloons of the district, gives the lady workers another opportunity of gathering together, not only the women and girls, but sometimes outsiders, and there a little community gathers after the day’s work is over, for such recreation as is consistent with the spirit of the mission work.
“Let it be the work only, and not the workers, which is put before the public,” said Miss Steer to our representative as they went round together inspecting the work.
“If more people knew of the work, they would help us to carry it on by giving us more means to do so.”
THE FOUNDER OF THE MISSION
But who could speak of the Bridge of Hope Mission and not put forward its founder, who is the very soul of it, who is acquainted with each individual case in her homes, and ever urging on others and practising herself the doctrine that the lost and the perishing must be reclaimed by efforts at humanizing them, not by many words, but by deeds and actions, although they may often only bear fruit after many days; but who is also keenly alive as to the price of fish and meat and other provisions – who does not fear that she is rousing the evil spirit of vanity in the children by telling them that “next Sunday they shall have new hats, brown ones, and much prettier ones than they are wearing now,” and under whose leadership, in fact, the little republic in Bett-street has become a body conducted on the most excellent social and economic as well as philanthropic principles?