A Vivid Pen Picture of Life in the East End
by Lady Henry Somerset
There are probably few contrasts to be found in any city greater than exist in the east and the west of London. So striking are they that it is difficult to believe the same city, the same nation, the same government can hold both. To many the word East London appears only as a vast tract of crime and misery and is looked upon much as we see the words marked on the map "Sahara Desert," an unknown wilderness which comfortable beings, who give themselves to the practical work of daily life, are not expected to traverse. But to us who know East London it is no longer a wilderness of woe, but a place which is crossed by the lights and shadows, by the sadness and joy that go to make up the sum of every existence, and above all, perhaps, the place where, side by side with depths of human degradation and misery, can be found an inspired unselfishness and a strength of rectitude which make us realize how the best in humanity can dominate circumstance. Nevertheless, it would be useless to deny that shadows predominate and it were well that all who are called to rule this nation should elect to walk the dark and untrodden ways of those streets of misery, as well as the stately ways of Westminster, in order to realize that the same city ought not to hold such terrible contrasts.
It is nearly 12 0'clock at night when we leave the settlement house, situated at the extreme east of the long thoroughfare, which is the artery of the east end. The wind sweeps across the broad road and whistles wildly by, driving the dust toward the marsh land that lies beyond, The streets in East London are never still; the tramp of the multitude goes on in unbroken rhythm when the stars are overhead almost as unceasingly as when the sun shine or the fog wraps us round. Men and women wearily walking, sometimes because they have nowhere to go, sometimes because their work keeps them late at night and sends them forth early in the morning sometimes because they are returning from that long quest in search of labor, the story of which is written in their dejected countenances and their despondent, bent shoulders; but the stream drives on and the trams roll by till one o'clock in the morning, and while some in east London sleep, as many wake.
But we are bound for the lodging houses in one of the very worst streets in that densely populated quarter; streets that have the unsavory reputation of being the scene of some of Jack the Ripper's murders; streets that have been the plague spot of the police, the puzzle of the philanthropists, the death of the city missionaries. We turn away from the main thoroughfare, down some of the dark side alleys, and then by the open doors and the lights we can see that we have come to the land of the doss houses, as they are called, where a cheap bed can be had for a few pence. Night seems hardly to have begun, thought it is late. The downstair rooms are still full of men and women whose occupation seems to be one constant passing in and out of the dirty kitchen to shuffle across the street through the open doors of the saloon, and here you find the secret of London's degradation. There are among that wretched crowd, herded in these lodging houses, men and women who have known days far different from their present surroundings. Some of these men have been in the army, some even have been ministers of religion. Some of these women have known good homes and refined surroundings, but the gaping doors of the drink shop could tell the story of their ruin. And as you breathe the loaded atmosphere of those horrible dens you ask yourself why it is impossible to rouse these people to a sense of their wretched environment, why cannot they be uplifted and reclaimed? The dull eyes, the heavy faces, the indifference, the stupor, is your answer - narcotized by drink. It is strange that such a quarter of our city should be infinitely more repulsive than the so called Chinese street, where, it is true, you see men smoking opium, pale, emaciated; but that vice seems as nothing in the clean though bare surroundings of the oriental in comparison with the horrible squalor of the English doss house.
We stand for a moment at the corner of the street. The clock is striking half past twelve, and we watch the closing hour of the saloon. A law has been enacted in England which makes drunkenness now a crime and men and women can be arrested without its being necessary, as formerly, that they be disorderly as well; but when the customers of the drink shops are turned upon the streets at closing time it does not seem as though the arm of the law had reached the offenders, for girls and women, young and old men, stagger blindly out into the street and drunken shouts and drunken yells and ribald songs and the shuffling feet of squalid, miserable women disturb the peace of the still night air. Another law has also been enacted by the legislature during the past year and that is that a list shall be furnished to all the saloon keepers, with portraits of habitual drunkards, to whom drink is no longer to be served. I know no more ghastly album. It would be possible to write a volume on the faces thus portrayed. Young girls, some not more than five or six and twenty, with still the indelible traces of youth and beauty upon their faces, but with the hallmark of crime and degradation; old women, who have dragged out weary lives, passing from the swinging door of one drink shop to another, till all that is left upon the face is a besotted leer, and it seems as though the spark of divinity which is in every one had surely been extinguished; men of the worst criminal type, low, brutalized, terrible. And we say to ourselves, as we turn these pages, when shall we realize that to deal scientifically with such abject misery as this we must not alone deny to these the freedom of the drink shop, but we should, for the good of humanity, count them as irresponsible lunatics and keep them safely segregated for the rest of their lives.
But there is another side of East London even more heartrending, for as we walk those bleak streets in the cold March wind we meet again and again the honest man seeking work and finding none. Never, probably, was labor shorter than at present. On all hands families are on the verge of starvation and men driven to desperation, men who walk all day and return wearied and wan with the same terrible sentence on their lips, "No job for me;" women crying for bread, not because they would not work or could not, but just because the bread winner can find no employment.
And yet there are gleams of brightness in this life in east London which help is and cheer is and make us realize that possible by and by we shall solve the great problem of sorrow by understanding how it is the crucible of God in which he can produce that which is likest to himself in human souls. We walk onward through those dark and dirty streets and by and by we come to a lodging house for women. No lower or more degraded place can be found. Yet as we enter there is a woman sitting near the fire drinking a cup of tea, surrounded by a group whose history is written only too plainly upon their faces, and as we enter we are recognized and they tell us how this poor soul has been nigh to the verge of death. She is expecting to go down into the great Gethsemane of suffering which shall bring her perhaps another load of sorrow, which, were it not for the circumstances, ought to be a woman's greatest joy. They found her on the bridge, leaning over the parapet, putting out feeble hands to clasp the cold hand of death; they brought her back again, these women whom the world calls bad, they warmed and clothed her and now she sits there huddled by the fire. She is no longer able to work; the hacking cough and the fevered cheek tell only too plainly that life is ebbing very fast from her, and yet who is it that supports her? These girls in their degraded life are giving half their food, any money they can spare, part of every cup of tea and every wretched meal to keep her from the workhouse, which she dreads as only the poor know how. We sat and talked a while and then passed on, realizing that the sisters of charity in this world are not only to be found among the pure and holy who have taken vows to devote their lives to God but that sometimes that divine charity lurks in hearts which have grown dim and dusty by a life of sin, but still can reflect back the light that falls for an instant upon that facet which God himself has cut.
|Lady Henry Somerset
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