In October, 1888, with the clamour to tackle what was perceived as the scandal of the conditions inside the East End common lodging houses that the Jack the Ripper murders had focused attention on, The Pall Mall Gazette sent a reporter to interview Dr. Thomas Barnado, who was leading a vigorous and vociferous campaign to protect the children of the poor of the district from the immoral influences of the common lodging houses.
The interview appeared on Thursday, 11th October, 1888. It provides us with a real insight into the living conditions inside the Victorian lodging houses, not to mention a chance to peruse the everyday lives of those who resided within their walls:-
THE IDEA OF A JUVENILE “DOSSING KEN”
A CHAT WITH DR. BARNARDO
“The saddest feature of the common lodging-houses in Whitechapel and other parts of London is that so many of their inmates are children. Indeed, it is impossible to describe the state in which myriads of young people live who are brought up in these abodes of poverty and crime…We want to make it illegal for the keepers of licensed lodging-houses, to which adults resort, to admit young children on any pretext whatever. It is also desirable that the existing law relating to the custody and companionship of children should be more rigidly enforced. At the same time some provision is urgently required for the shelter of young children of the casual or tramp class, something between the casual wards of the workhouse and the lodging-house itself – places where only young people under sixteen should be admitted, where they would be free to enter and as free to depart, and which could be made self-supporting, or nearly so.”
QUESTIONS FOR DR BARNARDO
So wrote Dr. Barnardo in the letter quoted in our leading article of Tuesday. Perhaps no man is equally qualified to suggest what can be done to give child-life in the East-end a better chance.
But his knowledge of the conditions of that life is not shared by the public at large. What is the legislation to which Dr. Barnardo refers? How do the boys and girls “fend” for the night at present. What kind of place could we make for them, and (the most practical question) how does he mean it to be self-supporting?
The following are the jottings of a representative whom we sent to get some light on these points from Dr. Barnardo himself:-
A HUGE FAMILY OF WAIFS
The way to Stepney-causeway, as I found when I threaded it to the place where the Doctor houses his huge family of waifs, is not strewn with flowers, and the district is no holiday quarter of London.
Past a ragged group of youthful candidates for admission, along corridors, and from sentinel to sentinel, I made my way at length to the director himself.
In a small room of most business-like appearance, at a table covered with files and papers, sat a clerical gentleman, with a keen and questioning manner. In face, he was a benevolent version of the Solicitor-General.
Electric communication, visible at the Doctor’s elbow, provided the nerves of the institution; and, with a sharp ping, some order or summons was flashed along from time to time, and responded to as promptly as given.
“Bring me Precis Book A 131 Q,” and in a moment we were conning in the punctiliously kept day book the records of the work of the last twenty-four hours.
THE FLOATING STREET POPULATION
Very strange and very sad were some of those curt entries: a liberal education in themselves on the conditions which beset the child-life of the floating street-population of the East-end.
For every child saved or to be saved from the abyss of want or vice, there was a dossier, which told also from what and from whom the salvation was needed.
Tersely and baldly catalogued in those pages were fathers matched with whom Count Cenci would seem a scrupulous parent, the page before us alone offering four heinous examples: mothers were there whose care for their own daughters was no more than that of the old Roman mangones for the slaves whom they set out in the market of the streets.
With relief, I turned to discuss Dr. Barnardo’s plain and practical suggestion for improvement.
THE TRUTH ABOUT EAST-END LODGINGS
“It must be clearly understood,” said the Doctor, “that it is idle to cry out for the suppression of these common lodging-houses.
To begin with, the poor people must have somewhere to go for the night.
But, apart from that, many of these lodging-houses are perfectly decent, kept by poor and honest people, sometimes excluding children.
They are under rigorous inspection, and are compelled by law to give so much elbow-room and breathing-space to each person.
For anything like what is commonly supposed, the licence of the keeper would be promptly endorsed, and a heavy fine would be the result.
THE MORAL ATMOSPHERE
Still, the whitewash of the place doesn’t make the people pure; and the moral atmosphere of many of these places, the association, the common talk, beggar description.
Perhaps the entire company in a “kitchen” are disorderly women.
I do not say for a moment that acts of immorality are committed in the lodging-houses; but I do say that it is inconceivable that a child frequenting them should retain any decency of mind; and, as a matter of fact, we know that here is often the turning-point in a life – the point at which its lot is cast definitely for shame and vice.
WORSE THAN THE COMMON LODGING-HOUSE
But the worst danger is not here. Far worse than the common lodging-houses are the “furnished rooms.”
They are the coveted night’s lodging – the more aristocratic. They are not subject to law and inspection, but to the ordinary system of letting and subletting.
The lodging-house charge is 4d. a night, or for a week’s beds 2s. Furnished rooms run from 8d. to 1s. 6d. a night.
The “furniture” amounts to a bed, a chair or table, and a candlestick; but there is privacy – you are partitioned off, probably by match-boarding.
But then each cubicle is often sub-let; and here comes in the point about the children.
THE HORROR OF THE FURNISHED ROOMS
Let me give an example; I was called up one winter night by a woman to come and see a friend of hers who was dying, she said. I was conducted to a “furnished room,” a compartment about a third of the size of this.” (Here Dr. Barnardo cast his eyes round the room in which we sat, about I4 ft. by 8 ft.) ”
The door I could hardly open: two men were lying on the floor.
On the bed lay the dying woman, a baby in her arms.
The woman who summoned me shared this accommodation, and on the floor lay no fewer than eight children, boys and girls, casual applicants, to whom the place was thus sublet by the men at, say, 2d. each, to cover their own expenses.
I will not assert that definite immorality does not go forward in places like that.
Yes, the furnished rooms are much the worst.”
NONSENSE ABOUT THE DOUBLES
“The doubles? Well, there has been a lot of nonsense talked about the doubles; by Mr. Montagu Williams, for instance, the other day. They are on just the same footing as hotels. When a lady and gentleman come for the night to an hotel, are they asked at the door for their marriage certificate?
As to the children, I won’t say that at some of the more disreputable places any questions are asked as long as a pair look about sixteen or fourteen, or even less.
But, generally speaking, the outcry against doubles is idle.
Now someone will cry out for a raid, of course. Well, a raid might have a great effect for a moment. But, it would be as bad again presently. And the children must go somewhere.
We get hold of scores of them in the evening, at the time when the common lodging-house kitchens are being cleared for the night, and the doors shut against those who can’t afford their fourpence.
But we can only take in such, or rather a few of such, as are willing to come under our care and are sick of the streets.”
“What I want is some regular provision for those who love the streets, places for them to go for the night in the ordinary course.
I do not wish, for certain sufficient reasons, to define my plans just yet. But I may say that one would make a rough age limit – under sixteen: there is an immense field among girls under sixteen; and we would make a low charge of, say, 2d., and perhaps give them a little hot “grub” in the morning.”
“Could such places be self-supporting on those lines?” I asked.
“At first, only if we have our rent secured. But eventually, when we have got our legislation, they should be entirely self-supporting.”
THE REQUIRED LEGISLATION
“What is the legislation which you want, Dr. Barnardo? And are you going to get it?”
“One piece of legislation for which we are not ripe yet, but which we hope to see soon, is that specified in my letter. We want the doors of the common lodging-houses, where the men and women herd, to be absolutely shut against children. That would bring to decent places the unattached children.
But what we want at once, and hope to get as soon as possible after Parliament meets, is a strengthening and making practical of the law about attached children in the guardianship of parents or others unfit to have them.
THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE
The law is very tender about the “rights” of these people, and very callous about their duties.”
“At present, we are working with the Industrial Schools Act, Vagrant Act, industrial clauses of the Education Act, and what is called Miss Ellice Hopkins’s valuable amendment, and, of course, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which has been of great value.
When that was passed, many of these immoral mothers came bringing their children to me in a fright.
MAY TO BE MADE MUST
Now at present, if a child is proved to be in company not such as the law prescribes, an order may be made to send it to one of the homes under the Industrial Schools Act.
But magistrates only too often render this nugatory. We want that may made a must. We want the law of England made at least as favourable to the children as the law of the colonies. Then there will be a decent chance for the real and sham children of tramps and beggars and prostitutes, as well as for the hosts who have to “fend” for themselves.”
HIRING A FAMILY
“You know (explained the Doctor) that there is considerable hiring out of children for the purposes of begging. Boys are cheap – say 4d. a day; girls run to 7d., or even 9d. ; babies come more expensive.
A woman with a baby in her arms will often do very well. All such beggars do better in the poor districts, where there are fewer policemen, and where they get the impulsive generosity of the poor, often but a step above themselves in means and station.
For instance, in Limehouse here they do well, and in the other great industrial, hard-working districts like Homerton, Bow, Poplar, St. George’s East, &c.
AS MORAL AS THE WEST END
Don’t run away with any idea of the immorality of the East-end. We are quite as moral here as the West. We work hard all day for our living.
But all these great industrial districts have fringes of vice and crime and squalor, where the poor wretches are who have just taken the short step down from poverty to degradation.
Thus, St. George’s East has Leman-street and Ratcliff-highway; Shadwell has High-street, leading into Ratcliff.
If anyone wants to realise the street-life which we are trying to better, let him walk along any of those parts, say in the twilight, before the regular orgy of degradation has begun.”
I thought as I came away, that a scarcely inferior education was to be got by a frank chat with Dr. Barnardo and a glance into Dr. Barnardo’s day book.”