A point that was often made in the Victorian newspapers about the East End of London was that poverty and starvation were far bigger killers, and posed more danger to the residents than Jack the Ripper ever did.
The Victorian newspapers often reported – albeit only ever briefly – on inquests into the deaths of those who had died from want and misery.
Justice, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation , in its edition of Saturday, 12th August 1905, carried the following article on a woman who had died under appalling and tragic circumstances:-
STARVATION IN SHOREDITCH
Annie Higgs, the wife of a compositor who died leaving her with three children, was literally done to death by starvation in the early hours of July 24. Her last cry, “I am dying, for God’s sake help me!”, fell on deaf ears.
The Guardians had stopped her out-relief in the beginning of May because one of her children was 14 years of age, earning 2S. 6d. a week.
No. 74, Long Street, the scene of this social tragedy, is one of a number of small four roomed houses, principally owned by the London and North-Western Railway Company, who deduct the rent from the wages of those of their employees who are their tenants.
The houses are let at eleven shillings per week, or 3s. 6d. per single room.
A PROUD AND SPIRITED WOMAN
Annie Higgs’s next-door neighbours, a respectable working woman and her daughter (whose dark hair and open, frank facial expression impressed one) both eking out an existence making paper bags, sorrowfully related how they had spoken to Mrs. Higgs when sitting at her window only a few days before she died, remarking how pretty her flowers looked.
“She was a very proud, spirited woman,” continued the poor paper-bag maker. “I asked her to have a glass of something to drink. “No, thank you; give Lily (meaning one of her little girls) the penny. She can go to the fish-shop and get herself something to eat,” was the plaintive reply.”
SCREAMS IN THE NIGHT
“The children woke us up in the middle of the night with their screams,” the story went on; “we fetched the doctor, who came very slowly. Upon his arrival all was over. He said it was another poverty case.
The next day Mrs. Higgs was removed, and the three children are now in the Shoreditch Infirmary School at Hornchurch, Essex.
One of the poor relatives has since taken away the best of the belongings.”
THEY SHARED BREAD AND DRIPPING
Other neighbours, a man and wife with four little ones, said, “We haven’t got much at the best of times, but we shared our bread and dripping often with Lily and her sisters, whenever they came in here.”
“My husband has not earnt a penny for six weeks,” said another, a small, thin, clean-looking woman, with a babe in her arms and two children clutching her skirts. “I have asked the relieving officer for help, and he only tells me to come into the workhouse.
AN APPALLING SCENE
Ascending the narrow stairway to the death-chamber of Annie Higgs, the gruesome scene was appalling.
Scattered about the floor were the remnants of a bed, two empty saucepans, rusty for want of use, a lamp, and some odds and ends on the mantelpiece. In the cupboard some crockery, broken glass, etc., but no coals, nor a vestige of food. How the mice must have wept.
Evidently the Redvers Street missionary had been there, or had sent, as the walls of the room were adorned with two framed texts:- “Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” – Matt. 28, 20. “Whosoever findeth Me findeth Life.” Prov. 8, 35. The irony of which needs no comment, as considerable difficulty was experienced by the local clergyman in finding the whereabouts of 74, Long Street, where Annie Higgs had breathed her last.
PARASITES DISPENSING CHARITY
Much concern has been evinced by the parasites who thrive upon the dispensing of charity.
Since the lamentable case happened the Charity Organisation Society and institutions of a like character have been busy, now it’s too late. Still, there is plenty for them to do, if they will it, to relieve the sickening poverty prevalent in the locality.
REPUGNANT TO ONE’S SENSE OF HUMANITY
As stated by a shopkeeper:- “Only yesterday a boy came into the shop:- “Please, sir, mother says will you buy a map?” “What do you want to sell it for?” I asked. “Because we’ve had nothing to eat for three days.” I gave the little chap a loaf and a lump of cheese, which he started to eat ravenously as soon as he got outside.”
Similar stories, repugnant to one’s sense of humanity, were heard on all sides. Meanwhile, much indignation prevails, and a searching inquiry has been demanded by the Shoreditch comrades and their friends, a strongly-drawn resolution has been sent to the President of the Local Government Board and the sitting members of Parliament.
A DEPUTATION APPOINTED
A deputation has been appointed to wait upon the Guardians at their next meeting, urging a reversal of their starvation policy, and the dismissal of the relieving officer, Mr. Wilson, for his negligence and brutal incompetence, as exemplified in the case of Annie Higgs, which, unhappily, does not stand alone, as only recently a matchbox maker died of starvation, and a little boy was found dead in a chair for want of food.