One of the intriguing things about East End poverty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is just how fascinated the middle classes were by it. Books – such as Jack London’s The People of The Abyss – presented readers with vivid, and often stomach churning accounts, of an author’s experiences when they had ventured into the area to live amongst the downtrodden poor.
Author’s, such as London, left vivid descriptions of their experiences, many of which make for decidedly uncomfortable reading – though reading that is necessary if we are to understand the social conditions that helped shape the local backcloth against which the Jack the Ripper murders were played out.
Journalists too headed East in search of stories that would present their readers with the harsh realities of the everyday lives of the poverty-stricken lives of those who had, quite literally fallen through the net of Victorian society.
A NIGHT IN A SALVATION ARMY SHELTER
In 1892, for example, a Daily Telegraph correspondent opted to spend a night in a Salvation Army shelter in Whitechapel.
His subsequent syndicated article appeared in several newspapers, among them The Somerset Advertiser which, in its issue of 8th September 1892, warned its readers that the account they were about to read was “shocking”,
Here is the article in full:-
WHITER THAN SNOW
“A notice, painted in bright colours and big-faced letters, advertised that you could have a comfortable shelter for 2d.
The money is taken by a man in a small recess to the left of the passage. In return for it he hands you a metal disc. This you give up to a man stationed at the foot of the staircase. You notice that the walls, ceiling, and floor of the corridor are clean and brightly and tastefully pinked out with colour.
The staircase mounted, you gain admission to the first floor of the shelter. The sight is a startling one. You catch sight of low-pitched rafters with lines of pillars supporting them. There are gaudily illuminated text scrolls on the walls, rendered more vivid because of the dark background of mural colouring. One inscription presents itself more boldly than others, “I have been washed, and made whiter than snow.”
You will think of this text more than once during the night.
The scene below you next invites and demands attention. You are standing on a platform; on your right are layers upon layers of folded skins. Each lodger takes one, you mechanically do the same.
Immediately beneath you, far away to the front, and deep to your left and right, ranged in regular lines, are some 150 coffin-shaped boxes, touch to touch one with the other, and with the floor.
The picture develops into a grim, ghastly, and gruesome sight. Quite half of the coffins, with their dull, dark strips of American leather, gape for tenants; of the remainder, many hold masses of humanity, distinguishable by a head, leg, or bust of the occupant that have emancipated themselves from the species of cobbler’s apron by which warmth and decency supposed to be ensured.
Others await their occupants, some of whom are sitting and some standing in the shells.
Many are already stark naked, others are fast becoming so.
The clothes removed are shaken vigorously, more often over a neighbour’s coffin than that occupied by their owner. They are then folded, the pillow of the American cloth mattress is raised, and underneath the wooden pillow, in the slit, are placed the clothes.
Naked forms glide, tramp, and stumble across the room, picking their way more or less gently through the intersection of coffins. There may be lavatories below, but for the use made of them tonight they might as well be on the Farm Colony in Essex.
Having selected a bed, the correspondent proceeds:-
Now, to inspect the “mattress” -quite glossy, but awfully sticky; you shudder to think of the perspiring form it has had to bear.
Muffler, coat, and waistcoat off. Food. Now shoes and socks. Store them away in the slit under the pillow.
Now, for the Cobbler’s apron.
Pugh! Not quite so near the nostrils.
Now give a look around.
The man in front of you is stopping up ventilation in his trousers. Another behind him is putting his supper out of sight; his clothes have preceded. Another, in the row of coffins on the raised platform near the wall, is endeavouring to suspend his freshly-washed shirt on the gas piping.
The Coffin on the right is let, and so is the one on the left. Two “pals” evidently occupy them. They carry on a conversation to which you are a forced listener. They settle down, sleep comes quickly or sluggishly, and you are within 2 feet of the heavy breathing faces. Twist and turn as you like, the couch is hard.
The atmosphere is very thick, the heat is oppressive, the air is almost foetid. Your head aches and throbs. Recline you cannot, for there seems to be a foul current of air coming from the shallow shells.
A RESURRECTION SCENE OF AWFUL GRUESOMENESS
The long, weary hours pass by not coffin is without its tenant. Quiet there is none. Conversation – now loud now low, lewd and offensive – is carried on around you. Of the 150 who occupy the 150 coffins on this floor, many are suffering from ailments which leave neither the ailing nor those near them in peace.
Above you there are still another hundred lodgers, access to whom is gained by an open staircase to an open room. You do not sleep; you cannot with your throbbing head on your tired hands and knees; your wretched frame undergoing relentless persecution from invisible and insatiable tormentors. Gladly do you welcome the first dawn of nature’s light on the scene, which has grown thick and yellow with humanity’s exhalations. As the streak grows and gleams through the low windowpanes, men rise from the living tombs – a resurrection scene of awful gruesome thus to resume their clothing, and to seek what you hasten to seek – light and air.
A WORD OF COMMENT
The conviction forces itself upon the mind that this phase of “General” Booth’s work is open to very grave objection, and demands a drastic and immediate reform.
The shelter, as it is now conducted, is no credit to the Army. The most elementary principles of personal cleanliness and decency are ignored. No attempt seems to be made to inoculate either the one or the other.
Of the spiritual influence the Salvation Army may exercise over those who seek refuge within its shelters I am ignorant; but I am convinced that, apart from whatever influence there may be, there is absolutely nothing in these shelters that can possibly tend to raise a man socially or morally.”