5 December 1888
AFTERNOON VISITS AMONG THE WOMEN OF A LONDON SLUM
Heads were thrust out of half a dozen window and grimy doorways.
The shrill sound echoed through the dusky alley and was tossed back and forth from one wall of blackish stone tenements to the other almost meeting it overhead.
"Lor'! It almost give me a turn. Only Polly Lupkins a callin' of Moll and Jem."
The heads disappeared and the alley was quiet, save for the bare feet of Molly pattering towards the outstretched tin platter from the left, and Jem, who had his eyes fixed on the utensil from the right.
Molly was a low necked, short sleeved, white pinched child with a shock of light brown hair falling over a dirty face and obscuring large, pretty, blue eyes.
Jem was a smaller and masculine issue of the same edition.
"It's goin' on a fortnight since they've 'ad winkles to their dinner. See 'em run," said the mother, waiting their approach.
"You see, I 'ad an uncommon large bundle o' h'army shirts from the Pimlico stores this week, and I told the chil'en, sez I, 'If I get 'em done fer you to take back this afternoon you shall 'ave a penn'orth o' winkles for yer dinner afore startin'. Now then, you Moll and Jem, look alive and see't they give you fresh ones."
Moll and Jem darted off to the winkle stand around the corner, and Moll and Jem's mother led the way through a dingy passage to a low, square, dingy room, where the midday meal was already spread, at least so far as the setting out of a loaf of bread, a bowl of dripping and a knife and spoon for the distribution of those edibles constituted spreading.
The first of the series of Whitechapel horrors was discovered on the morning of August 31st. I had planned for the first of September a round of afternoon calls, but the great, black lettered bulletins trodden under foot where the newsboys had spread them on the pavements at every street corner decided me to make my visits in the Bowery of London.
In the endless succession of dingy streets and dark, narrow lanes, in the squalid houses that wall in the blind alleys and dismal courts of Whitechapel district, in the more pretentious blocks that front upon its main artery, the broad, busy Whitechapel road ablaze with gin palaces and the paradise of cheap shops, there live more than half a million people, and, according to London estimates, from 10 to 12 per cent of the girls and women are, or at some time in their lives have been, harlots. How there comes to be such a colony of prostitutes, such a glut of female degradation, such a swarming population of abandoned women for Jack the Ripper to wreak his vengeance on in the very heart of the city was the point I hoped my afternoon calls might clear up for me.
It was at the end of Buck's Row, an eighth of a mile maybe from the spot where poor Polly Nichols had been found disembowelled the day before that I had opportunely dropped one or two halfpence from my change purse just abreast of Mrs. Lupkins calling for Jem and Molly to go for their winkles, and in course of the search for the coins had made her acquaintance.
"Deed an' I'm ashamed," said she, "as any lady wa'at knows wa'at decent things is should find me 'ere, for times ain't been this bad with me." And she glanced around at the mouldy wallpaper hanging in patches, the ragged pitfalls for the feet which constituted all that was left of the carpet, the baby lying asleep in a heap of soiled bedclothes on the floor, the chair or two which made up the furniture.
Mrs. Lupkins herself was a woman of 26 or 27, with the same tumbled brown hair and large, pathetic blue eyes which were the prominent features of the children. Two or three years earlier she must have been an attractive figure, but now her front teeth were gone, as well as most of the buttons of her dress, and it seemed that a very gentle push would shove her over the brink of the pit of hagdom.
"I've 'ad to put all my things away," she said in explanation of the scantiness of the furnishings. By putting away the London poor always mean pawning.
"My 'usband died last winter. 'E was a soldier and I've been to India with 'im an' pretty near round the world. 'E was consumptive an' 'ad to leave the service, an' for two years 'e was janitor to a 'abitation of the Primrose League. Then 'e died wi' fo' shillins in 'is pocket, and me gone six months with Nellie there. The ladies of the League they sent me three pounds to last over the confinement, but said as 'ow I was never to ask them for a penny more. It was good starvin' till I got so's I could do summut again, and 'taint so much better now. They 'ad to give me work at the guv'ment stores, because I was a soldier's widow, and they can't refuse. They give out army and navy shirts at Pimlico, but the pay is only thrippence apiece an' if you ain't got a sewin' machine it ain't many in a day you can do. Weeks w'en I 'ave all I can make I earn maybe six shillins, but there's lots after the work, and oftener's not it won't go round. Bad weeks I don't 'ave fo' shillins worth, and once in a w'ile none at all. Now then, Jem an' Moll, did ye eat them winkles on the way?"
Jem and Moll produced the platter of molluscs and a slice of bread thickly spread with dripping was cut for each, with two winkles apiece to persuade the unattractive meal.
"You can't think what a comfort winkles is, winkles an' bloaters. We ain't 'ad a bit o' meat since winter and summut snacky you can buy for a penny's a treat now an' then."
Mrs. Lupkins' rent is three shillings a week for the very dirty room, and I asked her how she managed to feed herself and three children on from one to three shillings, that is from twenty five to seventy five cents more.
Remembering the compulsory school law I asked her how it happened that the children were at home. Bare feet and inability to pay the school fees were the reasons. Moll and Jem had no shoes in two years but those the school board presented at Christmas and Mrs. Lupkins was even then under summons to appear before a police magistrate to answer the non-payment of fees. The Solomon before whom she was taken - as I learned at a later day - fined her five shillings with an alternative for a fortnight's imprisonment for failing, out of an income of four to six shillings, to pay school fees of two shillings, and without at the same time recommending to the School Trustees of the district the future remission of the tax on the ground that the woman was manifestly unable to pay.
Moll and Jem, made frisky by the winkles, played in and out of the room and the narrow passageway, occasionally tumbling with some emphasis against a door opposite their own. Finally the rickety barrier burst open, and a curious noise to which I had been listening received an explanation - the next room was occupied by a woman who was turning a mangle.
"Such young 'uns," she ejaculated, making ready to eject the intruders. Making much of the fact that a mangle was to me an unknown instrument of music, I begged to be allowed an inspection. While the heavy press was grinding out coarse underwear I studied this second specimen of the Whitechapel woman. She was a widow, like my first acquaintance, older, neater, thin, probably consumptive.
"Been talkin' to Mrs. Lupkins, ain't ye?" she panted, turning the groaning handle round and round. "Ever see 'er before? No? W'en she come 'ere last winter she was the decentest woman in Buck's Row. She kept 'erself nice 'an tidy, an' them children was slick as pins. But she's got discouraged an' fell into low company an' nex' time she's out o' work she'll go on the street. I've seen fifty women go that way an' I know the signs. It's 'er turn next, trust me."
To go on the street means in Buck's Row to starve on the casual hire of prostitution instead of starving on the hire of government shirts. The woman with the mangle had three children also and the four occupied one room. She had supported herself for three or four years by washing and mangling at nine pence per dozen pieces. She paid 4 shillings a week for rent of a room a little larger than Mrs. Lupkins', and was able to earn about 7 shillings a week in summer and 9 shillings a week when times were good in winter. She had been doing, she considered, very well, but the work was too hard for her, and she was obliged to have in a boy once or twice a week to turn the mangle while she fed it, paying for his services a penny an hour. A charity doctor had warned her that she was straining her chest and that if she wanted to live she must give up the work, but there was absolutely nothing else she could do to maintain her children, and I shrewdly suspected, apropos of her comment on Mrs. Lupkins, that in spite of her tidy room and efforts at respectability she was weighing the choice between mangling herself into a coffin and going on the street.
I saw women employed by umbrella manufacturers to knot the tops of tassels at 4 shillings 6 pence per gross and the work was so fine that the gross kept them busy a week. I visited other women making brushes a penny per hundred holes filled with fibres of hair. I found one woman making sacks for the navy. She was paid by the government 4 shillings for ten large sacks, each of which had eight holes in it, four splices and two patches. Each must be sewn, roped, and marked with a broad arrow. There were women making neckties at 9 shillings a gross, and girls who were paid tuppence halfpenny per gross for making the covers and trays of matchboxes. I saw women making babies' boots and earning about two pence an hour, women making paper bags, purses, lifebelts, baskets, tobacco pouches and twenty other things which are done at home. Every day the pay for home business grows less, for many men who are out of work take to these small occupations and undersell the women who a few years ago controlled the home industry market. Whitechapel women sell themselves because they have nothing else left to sell.
The apprenticeship system of England tells heavily against the squalid children of the Whitechapel streets. "What will become of the swarms of urchins lurking in every passage?" I asked an intelligent woman who knows Whitechapel as other women know Belgravia. "These women can't apprentice their girls to milliners or dressmakers or other tradespeople, because they can't raise the £25 or £30 premium. They have not the faintest chance of learning any business that will yield living waged.
"They will grow up as street Arabs," she said, "marry very young and without 10 shillings ahead. By and by work will fail and they will be driven to the streets for bread and lodging, if indeed their mothers did not sell them before they were grown."
Whitechapel is an awful fact, for many of its women practically choose between semi starvation and harlotry.
ELIZA PUTNAM HEATON.