10 June 1914
NIGHT IN THE UNDERWORLD.
Just now, when London is at its gayest, it is an instructive and rather a dreadful thing to make the round at night, under proper escort, of the places where those people find a refuge who have no homes. To do it from mere curiosity is inexcusable. But one who goes in a sympathetic spirit, with an earnest desire to learn something of the problems of life for the very poor, will find it a wholesome and chastening experience. For those who habitually think in terms of pounds until they grow to be so careless of their shillings and sixpences, it is well to be brought to realize sometimes what vital things pennies and half-pennies may be.
To-night, as every night, there will probably be a thousand people wandering the London streets without a bed or place in which to sleep. In the casual wards, the common lodging-houses, and various charitable shelters there will be upwards of 20,000 people, some 2,000 of whom will be women and children. It is true that, as was set forth in an article in The Times of April 27 last, the conditions in the last few years have shown a steady and appreciable improvement, partly as the result of deliberate effort on the part of the authorities, partly because times are prosperous and the few pence necessary for a night's food and lodging have been a shade less difficult for even the most incompetent to secure. But, in spite of the "abundance" of money, and notwithstanding every effort, there remains always this terrible residuum of those who have no home.
Of the various institutions where the very poor are provided with a night's lodging at a minimum of cost the most successful is, perhaps, the huge Salvation Army shelter in Great Peter-street, Westminster, in the building formerly occupied by Messrs. Burroughes and Watts. It is successful because, first, though it contains nearly 600 beds, every evening by 8 o'clock you are likely to find the words "Full up" chalked upon the door; and, second, because though the charge for a bed is only 3d. it is understood to be amply self-supporting.
For his 3d. the occupant gets a comfortable bed on an iron single bedstead, with two clean sheets and a leather-like "American cloth" coverlet. The vast rooms are comfortably warmed in cold weather, so that the covering is ample. In addition to his bed he can have a bath, with hot water, soap, and towel; and while he is in his bath his clothes will, if he wishes, be "disinfested." It is a process which is too often necessary. Now that we are waking up to the dangers to the common health which insects cause by carrying disease, it may be that in time we shall be able to overcome the curse of vermin. At present the reports of the London County Council show that the Health Department every year cleanses some 10,000 rooms, 30,000 persons, and over 100,000 articles of clothing.
Pence and half-pence go a long way in Great Peter-street. A large bowl of a savoury-smelling stew of meat and vegetables costs a penny. Three or four good-sized potatoes can be got for another half-penny, and other eatables are in proportion. The man with 6 ½ d. or 7d. to spend here can get here a good night's lodging, a satisfying supper and an adequate breakfast, besides laying in enough tobacco in the form of "fags" bought from fellow-inmates to last him over the day. Moreover, he spends the evening in warmth and comfort with a sociable company. It is not surprising that every evening sees that legend chalked upon the door.
From this place which sets the standard of the maximum of comfort obtainable for threepence, there are lodging-houses at which the prices range upwards to fourpence, fivepence, sixpence, and, finally, to the tiled and polished luxury of Bruce House at sevenpence. There are also other places, down to the casual wards and the purely charitable shelters which cost nothing.
Of these last the best known is Medland Hall, which is supported by the Congregational Union. Recently, under the London County Council's regulations prescribing a minimum of 350 cubic feet of air space for every bed, the accommodation at Medland Hall has been reduced, and now about 180 beds a night are occupied. They are real beds; but they are only just raised above the floor, each in a wooden box-frame, and as one passes among them in the dim light, the oblong boxes scattered about the floors, each with its motionless human figure within, are gruesomely suggestive. Most of the occupants lie in restful attitudes and sleep soundly. But here one has thrust his covering down below the waist and lies cramped and huddled. Another tosses and mutters, with arms thrown above the head. It is not ideally comfortable or luxurious. But it is a bed, and quiet and shelter for the night; and it costs nothing. It is not a little thing to give a chance of peaceful sleep with warmth and shelter to something like 200 homeless people every night.
To see the aristocrats of the underworld one should go to Bruce House, already mentioned, the County Council lodging-house in Kemble-street, Covent-garden. A bed here costs, as has been said, 7d. a night, and it is not exaggeration to say that many hotels give less comfort for 3s. 6d. The spacious rooms, scrupulously clean, decorated with plaques of red tiles, engravings of well-known pictures or Cecil Aldin's sporting prints; the bearing and speech and manners of many of the inmates; the bill of fare which begins with cold salmon and cucumber for 3d., and goes on through a long list of appetizing dishes at prices varying from 1d. to 3d., all combine to give it much more the atmosphere of a hotel than of a municipal lodging-house. Licensed for 706 beds, Bruce House is altogether a spacious and imposing institution.
Between it and Medland Hall and the casual wards are lodging-houses, shelters, refuges of all degrees. There are Southwark Chambers in Tooley-street, where the beds at 5d. and 6d. a night are chiefly occupied by waterside labourers, street hawkers, &c. There is a large common lodging-house for women in Mint-street, Borough, with 176 beds, where no food is supplied, but cooking facilities are furnished without extra charge. There is a place in Duval-street, Whitechapel, where there are 76 double beds for married couples at 9d. a bed, and close by in the same street is a lodging-house for women, with 90 beds at 6d.
Off Duval-street is Miller's-court, a forbidding cul-de-sac, containing six little two-roomed cottages, notorious as the scene of one of the Jack-the-Ripper murders. Nor is that the only murder which Miller's-court has seen. Until recently the little cottages were let for "furnished rooms," but now they are condemned and closed by the authorities under the Town Planning Act. Furnished rooms, however, there are in sufficiency at hand.