How The Poor Live

The following article appeared in The Daily Gazette on Friday, 21st October, 1881


“While a friendly old pieman and I stood partaking of harmless refreshment at the crowded bar of the Plume of Feathers, he was presently accosted by an individual whose general appearance in a neighbourhood of such questionable character was for the moment unpleasantly suggestive.

He was first heard behind us, with a clinking sound, as though his limbs were encumbered with fetters, but which really was occasioned by the jingling of an enormous necklace of street-door and other keys of all sorts and sizes and second-hand. The weight of them had worn his coat collar to rags, and their red rust had smirched him to the very eyebrows.

On approaching us, the peripatetic locksmith exclaimed “What cheer, my boundin’ buffalo!” shaking hands with the pieman so heartily that the keys rang like a peal of cracked bells; “how goes it by this time?”

Anything less like a “bounding buffalo ” than the weak-kneed, narrow little man thus addressed was scarcely conceivable.

But he took his friend’s waggery in good part, and replied dolefully that if things did not soon “go” better than at present, the sooner he was measured for a plank suit (a coffin) the better.

“I suppose you are still pulling the right string, Jacob?” the pieman remarked.

“Well, I musn’t grumble,” was the cheery reply. “I rub along, you know. I’ve been working the country since the end of July, and only came back today. I ain’t going to start a coach-and-four yet awhile, Dick, but I can spare that for you, old chap, for old acquaintance-sake, and there you are, and let us have none of your ‘ thanky’s,’ you old rascal.”

As he spoke he put a shilling into the pieman’s hand, and giving it a smack with his own rusty palm, and another shake, he was off.


“You’d never think it to look at him,” remarked the poor old pastry-seller, gratefully pocketing the welcome coin, “but he’s one of the best-hearted fellows that ever breathed – always has been the many years I have known him. But then, you see, he can so well afford it.”

“I wonder he goes about with that load of old iron round his neck, if that is the case.”

“Why, that’s how he makes his money.

As far as I know, there’s only one other man at the same game in all London.

He goes about just like you see him now, ringing a bell and fitting locks with keys, when the others have been lost or broken, at twopence each and upwards.”

“Does he make it pay?”

“Why, sir, he’s got houses. He’s got five in one little street in Camberwell to my knowledge, and another – a big un – in Knightsbridge, and all out of the old keys.

He’s told me that he makes as much as four pounds a week sometimes, and you wouldn’t doubt it if you was to see the comfortable little place he’s got of his own over in the Old Kent-road,”


“And does he do any business in such neighbourhoods as this?”

“There isn’t any occasion for him to try to. No; I know what brings him this way tonight. He’s got a brother, a weaver, close by here.

At least he used to be one when there was any weaving to do.

But he’s done up now, poor chap, like scores of the rest of ’em, and his wife and young one have gone to match-box making.

He used to have his own loom in Sclater-street, but that’s all pulled down now.

That was the ruin of any number of weavers in Spitalfields.

It was only half-a-loaf they were earning, the trade being so cut up and crippled, and pulling their places down took even that away from ’em.”

A tailor and his family in a room at 10 Hollybush Place.
A Military Tailor And His Family In Their Room At 10 Hollybush Place. From The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863. Copyright, The British Library Board.


“But couldn’t they go elsewhere?”

“I’d like to know where,” replied the pieman. “A room is no good to them unless it has got what they call ‘weavers’ lights’  – a broad window right along the front of it.

And then, again, there’s the space wanted for the loom.

It wants as much standing place as a mangle, and no common room, such as a poor fellow could afford to pay the rent of, would hold it and him and his family as well.

He might manage it if he had one apartment to live in and another to work in, but if he had only weaving to depend on it would take more than half his earnings to pay for them. But, you see, it’s a worn-out trade, so it doesn’t so much matter.”


“But what becomes of the weavers who are turned out of their homes and cannot find any other place to fix their looms in?”

“They sells ’em for the few shillings they’ll fetch, and some of ’em start selling things in the street with the bit of money, and if there’s only the old man and his wife, they go to the common lodging- house to sleep at nights. I know a good many that used to be weavers that are living that way. They go about with water-cresses, or shellfish, or firewood – anything that’s cheap and handy.”

“But why don’t they go to the more respectable lodging-houses? They surely would not have to pay a higher rent.”

The old pieman smiled. “You’ve just hit it, sir, when you say more respectable,” said he; “it would be better for them that’s most in want of clean and decent lodgings – them that are stifled up in slums, I mean –  if the landlords wasn’t all so precious respectable.

You might suppose that the model lodgings would take in a hard-working man – a weaver, say, with his loom. Take my word for it, sir, they won’t do it.

Why, they won’t have a man as a lodger if he hawks things about the streets, and brings his unsold goods home at night. It isn’t everybody that knows how blessed particular they are.

You must not keep a dog, or even a cat. You musn’t take care of a neighbour’s child, if it is known that you are paid anything for doing it, and you are beadled and bothered about one way and another, till a fellow that’s been used all his life to what you call liberty feels pretty much as if he was in a reformatory.

I’ve got a sister that lives in that block out here in Commercial-street, so I know all about it.”


“But there are many conveniences that you couldn’t get otherwise, and the rents are low.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” replied the pieman, with the manner of a man to whom the subject was a sore one; “my sister has got two rooms in that block I’m speaking of, one leading out of the other, and you couldn’t swing a cat round in either of them, if they’d let you keep one, and the walls havn’t a bit of plaster or paper on them, only the bare bricks coloured over red, and the rent she pays is four shillings a week.

And there’s sixty-three pairs of rooms in that block, so it must pay pretty well, I should think.”


“And are all the apartments occupied?”

“Oh, they’re occupied fast enough. It’s what makes ’em so precious independent.

The place is quite full, and, as the porter told me himself, there are sixty applications on his books, all waiting to take their chance of coming in when there’s a pair of rooms to let. They should build more of ’em.”

“But, from what you say, it wouldn’t be better for men like yourself if there were more of them built.”

“Only it’s this way, sir,” returned the astute old pastry-cook; “it is like the steps of a ladder, don’t you see. They won’t let people of my sort into the model lodgings, but they’ll take them that’s a bit more respectable, and when they move out of their lodgings, which are a lot better than those we are living in, we’ve got a chance of taking their place, and so we get a sort of a lift that way.”


Bearing in mind what the pastry-vendor had told me respecting the sad condition of the Spitalfields weaving business, I resolved to make some little enquiry into the matter; but when I did so I little expected to find that the trade of weaving must be reckoned amongst the well-nigh obsolete industries of London.

Half a century since, “as saucy as a Spitalfields weaver” was as familiar a saying almost as “proud as a peacock.”

The silk or velvet loomsman of a past generation was aware of his commercial value, and, combining with his brother craftsmen, was apt to carry trade matters with a high hand.

When a velvet weaver chose to work, he expected to earn some ten or twelve shillings a day, which, considering his extravagant manner of living, was the least he could do with, since he seldom did choose to work more than four days a week, or at the outside five.

The number of apprentices that were admitted to learn the art and mystery of the lucrative calling was controlled entirely by the journeymen themselves, and it was a favour, indeed, for any other than a weaver’s son to be accorded the ‘valuable privilege.


The publican whose establishment the free-handed and prosperous operatives honoured by naming their “house of call” deemed himself exceedingly fortunate, and set apart a well-furnished club-room for their especial use, which ordinary customers no more thought of seeking to enter than they would have thought of invading the landlord’s private parlour.

With his wife, and perhaps a grown daughter or two, always at work, the weaver could indulge in luxuries and amusements that other artisans could not approach.

Dressed in his best he was a sight to behold. It was frequently his pride to carry a couple of watches, and his drab “upper Benjamin,” or overcoat, of the best broad-cloth, was sometimes adorned with perforated crown-pieces in place of common buttons.


All this and much more that was equally amazing was confided to me by a woefully poverty-stricken old fellow, as he sat in his wretched garret, dining on a basinful of “kettle broth,” an economical concoction consisting of bread broken into hot water, enriched with a spoonful of dripping, and flavoured with a pinch of salt.

The table he sat at was the only article of the kind the room contained; the chair he sat on had no pillow and, excepting a stool and a few odds and ends not worth enumerating, his only other worldly goods were an ancient stump bedstead overspread with bedding and bedclothes the united thickness of which did not exceed the breadth of one hand, and a worm-eaten ramshackle old loom that looked all the more of a piece with its poverty-stricken surroundings because of the bricks and half -bricks that, in lieu of more expensive weights, dangled each from its separate string at the lower part of the machine – suggestive of its being utterly worn-out and on its last legs, and weighted in that way as old dogs sometimes are preparatory to putting them out of their misery by the process of drowning.


I remarked to the old weaver that, in the unlikely event of his trade becoming brisk again, he would require a new loom, but from that he dissented. “It’s good enough still, sir,” said he, “for the best work you could put in it, and so you’d have said if you’d seen the piece of velvet I turned out, the last of it the week afore last – stuff that would fetch in the West-end shops fifteen shillings a yard at the least.

I’ve known the time, sir, thirty years ago, on that very loom and in this very room – I’ve lived here thirty-one years come Christmas — when I could earn on such velvet eleven shillings a day of about twelve hours.”

“And what can you make at such work now?” I asked him.

“I can earn, sir, about one-and-ninepence a day, sticking close to it, and working from seven in the morning till I go to bed at night,” he replied.

“I’m paid three shillings a yard for it, when there’s any to do, and I can make a yard in about a day and three-quarters.

But I wouldn’t grumble at that if it was regular. It’s being idle so often that beats me. Sometimes I get a fair month’s work right off, which turns in ten shillings a week.

But when I got it I daren’t spend it all. Counting slack time and busy, I don’t earn more than seven-and-sixpence a week now, and out of that there’s four for rent.”


“But surely you and your wife cannot live on the three-and-sixpence a week remaining?”

“We’ve had to do it, sir, even when my old lady has been laid by with rheumatism,” he replied; “it is tight work, of course, at those times. Kettle broth, and nothing but it, then, with only sixpence a day to live on. It is easily laid out. Three pounds of bread fourpence-halfpenny, and a ha’porth of dripping, a ha’porth of paraffin for the lamp, and a ha’porth of wood to make the kettle boil.


It isn’t often as bad as that, thank goodness,” said the old weaver gratefully, “because, when the wife is well, which in general she is, she has got a constant job at the umbrella work. There’s some of it already for her to go on with when she comes home,”

As he spoke he directed my attention to a bundle of umbrella frames lying by the wall.

They were well fitted up, with patent ribs and ivory heads, such, I should suppose, as, when finished, would be sold at the drapers’ for twelve or fifteen shillings.”

At such work as that,” said I, “an experienced hand should be able to earn something considerable.”

“Well, you see,” replied the weaver, “It is not what it was. She is paid threepence each for covering ’em all complete, but old age, and her eyes being bad, makes her slower than she used to be, and she can’t earn more than seven- pence or eightpence a day at it.”


In another house I found a room where a woman was weaving cheap red silk, such as men’s neckties are made of.

The loom was close to a bedstead, on which lay her husband – a woeful spectacle to contemplate, poor fellow, and no wonder, considering that he had been confined to that dreadful little place  – and most of the time in bed – or three years, his complaint being rheumatic gout.

There may be much truth in the proverb that “use is second nature;” but, remembering how peculiarly sensitive to disturbing influences rheumatic patients are, it was not easy to feel convinced that the constant twitching of the poor man’s features was not owing to the creaking and jarring of the loom each time the woman threw the shuttle.

But what was she to do, poor soul?


It was wretched pay this common silk weaving – only sixpence a yard, and working hard at it she could earn no more than about twopence an hour; but it was either that or the workhouse. So the sick man winced without opening his mouth in complaint, and his poor wife threw the shuttle with patient industry from early morning till late at night, adding strand to strand of the silk, that seemed but a little thicker than a spider’s web, until she wove a whole yard of it and earned sixpence.


I went into another room in the same house, and the same story was told in another way.

Here there were an old man and his wife – he seventy-seven, and she seventy-two – and there were two looms in the room.

They were fringe weavers, and, with pardonable pride, the deplorably shabby old fellow produced samples of the splendid fringe for ladies’ cloaks and mantles they had from time to time woven for the “best houses.”

“But it is cruel work now, sir,” said the old fringe weaver, “even when we’ve got plenty to do, which isn’t often. Working at it early and late, we can’t earn more than ten shillings a week between us.”


“And do you have to live and pay rent out of that?” I asked him.

“Well, I’ll let you into the secret of that,” he replied, lowering his voice, for fear the other lodgers might hear. “We’ve got a very good landlord, sir. We’ve lived in this one room for five-and-twenty years, and we only pay half-a-crown a week for it. And he won’t raise it so long as we stay here, and I don’t ask him to do it up. It will fetch four shillings a week any time when we leave.”

The poor are grateful for small mercies. The ceiling was black with age and smoke, and patched here and there to keep the plaster from falling down; the walls were mapped into gaps and open chinks, the floor worm-eaten and shaky.

But, no doubt, as he was allowed to stay there on such easy terms, it was something to be grateful for.


Wretched and dilapidated as the place was, I had seen enough to feel sure that there were dozens of poor creatures who would have gladly moved into it just as it was and thought it cheap at four shillings a week, so that it included the rare privilege of providing standing room for a loom, by means of which precious possession they might earn just enough to keep them from starving.

I may have been unfortunate in hitting on exceptional cases, but I can positively say that of about twenty Spitalfields weavers’ rooms I entered – velvet, silk, or fringe workers – I did not find one whose average earnings were more than twelve shillings a week, while the majority thought themselves lucky if they were able to gain eighteenpence for a day’s labour of twelve hours.”