The Unemployed 1886

There can be no doubt that, throughout the 19th century, press and public interest in the plight of the poor of London began to increase dramatically.

Journalists began seeing the benefit to sales of bringing to their readers attention details of how the destitute and the unemployed lived; philanthropists and religious bodies began warning of the repercussions that might result should the social conditions in the poorer parts of London be allowed to continue without improvement; whilst others came to see the more poverty stricken parts of the Victorian metropolis as a source of curiosity and were participating in the slum tours that had begun to grow popular from the early 1880’s.

Just as today, some of the more right wing media could not be certain if the indigenous poor were victims of circumstance or victims of their own idleness; and various newspapers were trotting out the age old mantra of the poor and the unemployed living lives of Riley at the expense of decent hard working citizens.


On April 24th 1886 The Graphic published a four page report which was headlined Our Artist’s Sketches From Life Among The Unemployed.

The article was written by J. R. Brown, and was intended to dissuade readers from giving money to beggars that, so the article claimed, had proliferated as a result of the “Bitter Cry of Outcast London; An Inquiry Into The Conditions Of The Abject Poor,” which had been written by the Reverend Andrew Mearns, in order to encourage the more affluent Victorian citizens to look more favourably on the less well off.

Brown sought to redress the balance by pointing out that many of the supposed “abject poor” were, in fact, happy to remain so, as long as gullible wage-earners were willing to provide them with a ready supply of easy money.

In other words, Brown set out to do what so many similar newspapers are still doing – demonise the poor by portraying them as feckless scroungers to whom honest employment was anathema.

Indeed, I word urge you to read the report, and then to compare it with some of the reports currently appearing in certain sections of the media, and you’ll see that the rhetoric being employed today is almost identical to the rhetoric that was being used back in 1886.


Beneath the headline was an illustration showing a line of, presumably, unemployed people standing over a musical stanza beneath which were the lyrics “What will be-come of Eng-er-land, if things goes on this way. An’ Un der-eds of work-in men. His star-vin every day.”

The headline and illustration from The Graphic.
From The Graphic, April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The article read:-

“The Lord Mayor’s appeals for funds, the memorable riots, and articles more or less sensational in various newspapers, have made the dweller in London tolerably familiar with the sufferings of the unemployed.

The writer lives in a presumably quiet street in the suburbs, where day by day, throughout the late long and dreary winter, the unemployed have said and sung the story of their own woes.

Very distressing and heartrending were the sights when the snow lay deep, and when the bitter east wind found out all our weakest places.

We are beginning to become hardened, for we have seen through some of the wiles of the professional street-beggar.

A cold, wet day was the best for observation.


About nine o’clock a song (fortissimo) warned us of the approach of a row of men stretching quite across the street each man revolving on his own axis, so that no window or wayfarer should miss his eye.

They were a varied selection, comprising a labourer (comprehensive term, including all the street-loafers who never by any chance do an honest day’s work), a dustman, a paperhanger, a ganger (in clean and very unyielding corduroys) – the ganger always acted as cashier and started the singing, keeping up the vigour, when started, by force of example; then came the patriarch of the party, a rather dissipated-looking old gentleman with a rasping voice and bow legs; revolving next to the patriarch came a nondescript costermonger with a voice of terrific power, and then an individual who slouched along in a hang-dog manner, and whom it was impossible to connect with any trade or profession under the sun.


The company included two or three skirmishers, whose office it was to collect the money, and it must in justice be said they were kept very busy.

The pockets of the singers seemed to be of abnormal depth, for their arms sunk into them up to the elbows, and were never removed except when absolutely necessary to take the offerings of the soft-hearted.

Their song was dismally expressive of the decay of England’s greatness, the depression of trade, and the terrible sufferings of the working man, and was roared with a lustiness and energy which showed that their lungs were still intact, and in a very healthy condition.

After a slight interval, pleasingly diversified by an Italian organ of great power, we were brought back to the desperate state of the country by a speech from a working man with a painter’s bag over his shoulder, who delivered himself as follows:-

“Kind friends, I have come out to see if I couldn’t pick up a crumb of bread. ‘Ow can I go ‘ome to the wife as is a sitting without food or firing. Friends, I live close by ye ‘ere in the ‘Ornsey Road. Me and my wife only yesterday, as was Sunday, ‘ad only one pennyworth of bread ‘atween two on us; think of that, friends (very slowly and impressively), one pennyworth of bread. ‘Ere I ‘ave bin out since arf-parst six this morning, and nobody to say” (which wasn’t very likely) “‘Ere’s a ‘ard crust. I don’t arst for bread, friends, I arsts for ‘ard crustes – for ‘ard crustes.” (Despairingly) “God ‘elp the poor!”

The man addressing the crowd.
From The Graphic, April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


This appeal brought out a number of servant-maids with neat little parcels of food which he crammed into his pockets; but, instead of instantly rushing off to his starving wife to save her from dissolution, he immediately repeated his speech, and kept on repeating exactly the same words till his voice was lost in the distance, giving one the idea that he must have obtained in an hour or two enough provisions to victual a ship.


Almost immediately these appeared a thinly-clad woman, with a clean white apron and widow’s weeds, accompanied by a child or two, singing “I dew believe, I will believe.”

This little hymn is a great favourite with the street singer, in the first place, because it is easy to learn; and secondly, because it impresses old ladies with the fact that the singer, in spite of great misfortunes; still remains steadfast in the faith.

More organ, and then follows a Manchester operative, with a deep voice, and a bundle carried a la Dick Whittington; he also sings something deeply religious. Sometimes he was accompanied by his wife, propelling a perambulator, containing a small family.

A quarter of an hour’s grace, and then we were startled by hearing snatches from Mozart, sung by a magnificent voice.

We looked out, and beheld a dirty, shirtless vagabond in fearful boots.


Following this singer we had an organ, with a monkey; and then THE very distressed family which sang Christmas Carols.

The wretched father had a fortnight’s black stubble on his chin and cheeks.

Clustering round him were five well-fed youngsters, and he carried a sixth in his arms.

The eldest boy had irrepressible spirits, and rather spoiled the lay, for he danced behind his unconscious “father,” making hideous grimaces.

An illustration showing the distressed family.
From The Graphic, April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


After this there would be a slight lull, and then a weak man’s voice would be heard singing “The Meeting of the Waters,” with an accompaniment of thundering knocks at the street doors.

The voice proceeded from a man, hollow-eyed and weak-chested; appearing to be in the last stages of starvation, he crept slowly and painfully along the kerb.

A portrait of the wretched father.
From The Graphic, April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The knocks were administered by a sprightly Whitechapel “‘Arry,” dressed in the peculiar costume affected by that fraternity.

‘Arry’s knock being answered, “‘Aint that a orful sight, miss, that poor feller out there a singing? I’m bad enough, but ‘e’s almost a dropping wi’ starvation.”

Whitechapel 'Arry talking to a lady.
From The Graphic April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Upon meeting with a refusal to give him some temporary help, ‘Arry shook his fist at the door, and proceeded to the next house, and the children rushed to the window to see the starving man, a movement which did not meet with the dying man’s approval, for he came to the railings, emitted a’ torrent of profanity, “took a sight,” and danced with rage.

This performance reached a climax just as ‘Arry was saying to the lady who opened the door at the next house, “‘Aint that a orful sight, lady.” ‘Arry was right, it was “an awful sight.”

These worthies, seeing that the game was up, quitted the road, shaking the dust from their feet, cursing loudly and deeply as they went.

A man pulling a face at a house.
From The Graphic 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


A reverend old man, known to us as “Old Inkland,” next made his appearance. He waits upon us regularly once a week. His song is a very puzzling one, we cannot make out what it means:-

“Stormy clouds approach “Old Inkland,”
Weep not, oh, weep not for me,
For health ‘e tried, But was denied
Across the deep blue sea.”

He sings with a pause of four seconds between each line, and during the pause stands immoveable.

A portrait of Old Inkland.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1884. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The demon fiddler was our next visitant; his method is to rush down the street, neither turning nor looking to the right or to the left, playing (staccato) “Glory to Thee, my God, this night.”

He appeared about dusk, and appropriately ended up the day.

A portrait of the Demon Fiddler.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The next morning, while taking an early stroll, we came suddenly, at the foot of a dead wall, upon the beggars’ spoils of the previous day – a dozen paper parcels, filled with excellent food, torn open at the corners for hasty examination of the contents, and thrown away, literally, to the dogs.

The leftovers from the beggars.
From The Graphic. 24th April, 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Being anxious to see something of the working of the Lord Mayor’s Fund, we were directed to an East End parish, and found the Distribution Committee rather disgusted at its effects.

The clergy assure us that there has been no exceptional distress in the past winter, and that the people relieved are those who have to be annually relieved, being mostly the idle and shiftless.

The Fund has done much to encourage vagabondage, and in many instances applicants have been known to leave excellent employment for the sake of participating.


In Spitalfields, inhabited almost entirely by the very poor, we visited many wretched courts, in which lived many of the people receiving relief.

The sanitary arrangements were indescribably filthy, the water-closets and dust-bins overflowing into the yards.

A view into a Spitalfields Court.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In one room we found a woman, assisted by a daughter about twelve years of age, making match-boxes.

The room was dirty and close in the extreme, half-a-dozen children were continually running in and out, while the father of the family sat gazing into vacancy.

The price paid to the matchbox-makers is 21/4.d. per gross, and out of this they have to find their own paste.

The poor woman told us she could make seven gross per diem, and this made the whole support of a family of nine.

The daughter was pasting the pieces while the mother joined them together.

We asked the head of the household why he did not help at the box-making.

He proudly informed us that he was a boot-maker – a hand-sewn boot-maker.

“Nobody wears hand-sewn boots now,” he said, so he kindly allowed his wife to keep him.

The room was about ten feet by six in dimensions, and had a frowsy bed at one end, and a few miserable sticks of furniture.

Inside the matchbox maker's room.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


We heard of some other men in the same court whose employers have absolutely to drag them to their work.

The poor in the East End complain bitterly of the Jews,who undersell them in the labour market, especially in the tailoring, boot-making, and cabinet-making trades.

The Jews live and sleep in their workshops, living on the very poorest of fare, working early and late, and taking only their religious holidays.


In Whitechapel and Spitalfields the Lord Mayor’s Fund was distributed on the labour-test system.

Work was found for men at street-sweeping and for women at needlework.

The pay was given in proportion to the family of the applicant – 1s. per day for women, with 3d. per day additional for each child.

The Rector of Spitalfields showed us a large schoolroom in which a hundred and fifty women were making under-garments of unbleached calico.

Women working a needlework.
From The Graphic April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It was astonishing to notice how many women were incapable of sewing; many, finding that it was not necessary to work to enable them to draw their salary, did not attempt it, but gossiped with great vigour; others worked hard, but without skill, and much time was taken up in unpicking their work.

The chatter was incessant, the hard-working lady whose duty it was to keep all the women at work was driven almost frantic.

The children ran in and out, their anxious mothers rushed in and out after them, and everybody was busy.

There was a slight want of punctuality about many of the ladies; half, or even a whole hour’s margin was not considered too much for a dinner-hour.

The late ones became at times wildly abusive on being remonstrated with on the subject of their remissions, and evidently thought they were conferring a favour by coming at all.

Many of the women seemed to be skillful and worked very hard, but the great majority proved to be of the useless sort – the kind of women who stand with arms a-kimbo, gossiping at the corners of bye-streets of the East End.

Women gossiping outside a house.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The garments made at the sewing labour-test will be sold at a very cheap rate to the poor of the district.

It may be mentioned that a great deal of permanent employment is given to the poor of Spitalfields in the laundries and work-rooms carried on and managed by the Rector, the Rev. C. Billings.

There are capital clubs for men, women, and boys, a parish kitchen (where all the beef-tea for the district is made), and many other similar institutions.

In the kitchen the chops and other little dainties ordered for the sick are cooked, a wise provision, for in these working neighbourhoods the women are the worst cooks in the civilised world.

The men who proved themselves industrious and trustworthy at the street-sweeping or window-cleaning were helped substantially, as in the instance of getting a man’s tools out of pawn, or setting him ” upon his feet” by purchasing for him a small stock of flowers to enable him to start hawking in the streets.


There can be but little doubt that the Lord Mayor’s Fund has not reached the really unemployed.

There is great distress existing, but not among the class among whom the money has found its way.

The really deserving are too proud to make their difficulties known; the noisy and importunate have reaped a rich harvest.

The news that so many thousands of pounds were to be distributed has brought an influx of lazy ones from all parts of the country, who, if they at first located themselves in a parish where the labour-test was insisted upon, soon migrated to a parish where it was not, and where tickets for food and clothing were distributed without many troublesome questions being asked.

One of the women, loudest in her appeals for help, was found to be carrying on the business of a moneylender, and was doing well.


Another mistake was sometimes made, in appointing an unemployed workman to investigate the condition of applicants in his own neighbourhood, the consequence being that his friends and neighbours were looked after; a pot of beer judiciously applied to the inquisitor having been known to work wonders.


It is a matter for thankfulness that these poor unemployed, in spite of their numerous and heavy troubles, have not lost their animal spirits.

In fact, their appreciation of fun, in the shape of rough “horseplay,” is as lively as, or even more lively than, ever.

Their delight is to make themselves as troublesome as possible to those set in authority over them.

The Superintendent of some relief works at a well-known place of rural resort within a short distance of London writes to a friend:-

“I am having the hottest time I have ever had in my life with these unemployed.”

When a cart was to be filled with excavated soil, the whole of the four hundred men employed there insisted upon having the job, and simultaneously set to work at it.

Their love of fun presently making them uproarious (probably the effect of country air upon empty stomachs), they threw their shovelfuls towards the cart, threw them in the air, threw them over each other, threw them everywhere but into the cart; the downtrodden, broken-spirited unemployed enjoyed their “larks,” but the cart was never filled.


We saw a man, up from the country, who had gone through the trying ordeal of the street sweeping with credit to himself and satisfaction to the Distribution Committee, proudly exhibiting to an admiring knot of women the reward of his industry and virtue: two golden sovereigns and a new pair of boots.

This man had come up from the country, drawn hither by the tempting news that money was to be distributed wholesale.

London street sweepers.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


A man out of work lodged with a cobbler who was well employed.

The lodger signified his intention of seeking the relief afforded by the Mansion House Fund.

The landlord was delighted with the idea, and announced his determination to go and try his luck. “But you’re not out o’ work!” said the lodger. “That don’t matter, I might as well take my chance,” was the reply. The cobbler was glib of tongue and a good actor to boot, and he obtained a larger amount of plunder than the man who was really eligible.


Let it not be supposed that we wish to throw ridicule upon the poor.

The late hard winter and the depression in trade has thrown many out of work, but, at the same time, sensational and pathetic articles, while they draw out the sympathies of the charitable, have the effect of setting loose upon the streets numbers of people who will not work at all if they can help it.

Once a working man takes to street singing he is very unwilling to return to honest labour again; the thing is too easy, the returns are so good.


We heard the other day of an employer who was waited upon by a man who had been out of work for thirteen weeks; everything had been sold; his family were starving.

The employer, being in need of hands, gave him a job, and, at the same time, a sovereign to take his tools out of pawn, and five shillings for his present necessities.

The man came to work, and worked decently well.

At the end of a week the employer, becoming very busy, requested the man to work a little overtime, but, to his surprise, was consigned by the poor workman to a certain place not to be mentioned, the man marching out of the place never to return.


Another case.

A batch of men were given a job at their own trade, but left it after three hours because the workshop was not heated to the number of degrees they wished.

They left, reviling those who remained, calling them mean-spirited hounds for staying in such a (adjective) place, and returned to their street-singing, which, indeed, paid much better than their own trade.


A gentleman, of Highgate, the other day was asked for alms by a sturdy fellow.

The gentleman refused alms, but offered. work in his garden. The man requested to know the rate of remuneration. Half-a-crown a clay was mentioned, when “I’ve never worked for less than three-an’-six,” said the beggar; “an’ I’m blowed if I will now!” and walked to resume his supplication elsewhere.

The abusive beggars are rampant, the quiet suburban streets are infested with them.

Their method is to assail ladies for alms, and, if denied the expected dole, to call down in loud tones the curse of Heaven upon the refuser and blessings upon the poor in the same breath.


The system adopted by lazy parents of sending out their children to beg has been greatly increased by the late outcry about the distress.

We hear of a woman who lives in our neighbourhood in comparative affluence, and who dresses fashionably, who is supported by voluntary contributions collected by her children, who are sent out every morning for that purpose.

The suburban railway-stations are infested by groups of boy and girl mendicants.

The other evening we were passing the gate of a station, when we were begged in piteous terms to give “One ‘apenny” to one of a group of little girls of about eight or ten years of age.

We refused, and immediately heard her shout, “Why, Mary Ann, I’ve only made one-an’-fourpence to-night!”

It was then quite early in the evening.


A lady who daily sent out a hot dinner to a poor old woman, who stood asking alms at a street corner opposite her house, was astounded to hear her half after a square meal assure a group of sympathisers that she had not broken her  fast that day,

This same old and woman, so clean, so quiet spoken and so eminently respectable, was found by some of her patrons singing ribald old songs to a party of delighted street boys.


A woman, so thin as to be almost transparent, used to visit our house twice a week for broken victuals.

She had a sick husband at home, and she thanked us for small donations with heartfelt gratitude.

One morning early she came to us, weeping very bitterly, her husband was terribly ill, in fact, dying, and she implored us for a little help to enable her to fetch a doctor.

Three hours later we saw her helplessly intoxicated, the target for missiles of mud thrown by young costermongers.

She came back to us, however, in another day or two but we described the scene to her, and she never returned.

A happy road sweeper.
From The Graphic, 24 April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The moral of all this is: Do not encourage beggars, whether they come in the out-o’-work guise or no, by giving them anything.

The recent “bitter cry” has made hundreds of beggars and street-singers.

The fact that they nearly all use the same songs, and make their speeches in precisely the same words, proves that their parts are learnt, and that their mendicancy  has become a profession.”