The plight of the poor of Whitechapel was a theme that the newspapers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras returned to time and time again.
Even before the Jack the Ripper murders focussed the attention of the world on the horrific social conditions in some parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, the press was awash with articles that attempted to expose the daily horrors of the lives of the poor. And those articles continued long after the Whitechapel murderer, whoever he or she had been, was consigned to the pages of history.
The following story, which was, in fact, a reprint of a story that had appeared in the Daily Mail, appeared in Australian newspaper The Quirindi Herald And District News on Tuesday, 26th February, 1907:-
IN WHITECHAPEL. STORY OF A SLUM BABY
A woman of Whitechapel with a five-day-old baby on her knee sits shivering before a meagre handful of firing In a grate. Three other children form the family group. This mother, exhausted and weak, has so sat with her children from early morning till late evening. Not one of them has tasted food all day, save the Infant, who has a “milk ticket” from the London Hospital.
All are awaiting the return of the father – a hawker of shirt-studs. He will bring home a few coppers. Little enough to feed and clothe the hungry, tattered brood; little enough to give strength to this weak, newly-made mother, anxious to return to her work as bottle-washer in a factory.
These are the life-stories the maternity nurses connected with the London Hospital are facing each hour of the day and night down Whitechapel way.
LIFE IN A SLUM DWELLING
Here are women in plenty whose recent and fifth baby opens its eyes in the one living-room, where the father it will never know is in the last stages of consumption.
The only articles of clothing worn by many of these mothers during the lying-in period are a ragged skirt and a cotton blouse. A pair of stockings and other decent womanly apparel are absolutely unknown to some.
You will find these poor souls on the second morning after the birth of a child sitting up in bed washing out a few family rags that their children may bear some semblance of respectability at school. They peel potatoes and make ready such rough fare as their husbands need, a little girl meanwhile doing such meagre domestic duties as the mother can direct from her bed in the corner.
A NIGHTMARE OF SUFFERING
The infant perhaps has been lucky to obtain one of the coveted Lady Derby “Babies’ Bundles” from the London Hospital. So long as the maternity nurse is in attendance the baby may count himself rich, for does not the London Hospital also, of its kindness, and when funds permit, grant milk tickets for the hungry infants of its maternity cases?
But other newer babies are born into the district, and at two weeks old this little waif of Whitechapel learns to sustain life on an occasional 2d tin of the very cheapest brand of condensed milk on the market. Remember that this is “separated” milk, robbed thus of practically all that a baby needs to nourish his frame and build up his bones and body.
Small wonder that our children’s hospitals are crowded with the victims of rickets, scrofula, consumption, and every disease which makes childhood a hideous nightmare of pain and suffering.
NO CHANCE OF SUCCESS
Doubtless some of the parents are drunkards, many are wastrels, and of incorrigibly bad habits. But this is no reason why thousands of little babies should be slowly starved, should be artificially created into cripples, maimed, the halt, and the blind.
How can babies so reared face life with any chance of success?
It would be far cheaper for the State to clothe and feed the baby, and render it a sturdy, self-supporting worker, rather than by neglect to add to the vast army of inefficient and incapables.
And if the State will not do it, let us help the hospitals to do it.
AN EAST END TRAGEDY
Here is a common enough tragedy in the annals of the East End.
A woman cared for by the maternity nurses of the London Hospital had twins six months after the death of her husband. And four other children to keep. Only a mother’s frail strength between starvation and six hungry children!
Isn’t a case like this sad and touching enough to send every woman who reads it straight to her nursery cupboard, there to rummage out odds and ends of baby clothes for the use of these destitute little ones of London?
NO HOME TO GO TO
Many mothers leave the beautiful “Marie Celeste” maternity wards of the London Hospital, a new mouth to feed at their breast, and no home to go to. They owed rent, they have been sold up during the woman’s absence in the hospital.
Even if a bare room can be secured for shelter, often there will not be a crust of bread or a drop of milk awaiting their arrival “home.”
God help them, we cry, but why not do so our selves first?
THE MAINSTAY OF THE FAMILY
The greater number of these women – wives and child-bearers – are the main stay of the family.
They work ceaselessly and uncomplainingly.
Many are employed in rope factories, others pick up a scanty living by cleaning door steps and doing a day’s work for their neighbours of the Jewish faith, to whom labour on their Sabbath is forbidden.
THE PRIDE OF THE POOR
Others are hawkers, rag-sorters, flower and fruit sellers. But only as a last pitiful extremity will a mother of the roughest and lowest caste consent that her child shall be stamped as workhouse born.
This is the pride of the poor. And it is well not to break down such a barrier of self-respect.
One hundred and twenty thousand babies are lost yearly in England and Wales. They are the potential thews, sinews and bulwarks of Great Britain. And they are lost for the sake of a few warm clothes, a few gallons of fresh milk, a few of the commonest creature comforts.”