A PENNYWORTH OF COAL

It was winter-time, and the cold damp fog had fallen like a heavy cloud
on East London. The pavements were grimy and greasy; travelling, either
on foot or by conveyance, was slow and dangerous. The voices of children
were not heard in the streets, but ever and again the hoarse voice of
some bewildered driver was heard asking his way, or expostulating with
his horse. Occasionally a tell-tale cough came from some foot-passenger
of whose proximity I had been unaware, but who, like myself, was slowly
groping his way to a desired haven.

I found my objective at last, and I entered a queer room possessing two
doors–one the ordinary street door; the other, of which the upper part
was glass, opened into an outhouse at a right angle with the house door.
This annexe had once been a greengrocer’s shop, and fronted a
side-street; now it was used as a coal and coke depot, and to it
resorted the poor for their winter’s supply of coal and coke.

The proprietor was ill, had been ailing for years, and now the shadows
of eternity hovered around him. It was afternoon, and he was resting. I
sat talking with his wife, an elderly woman, who sat at a machine making
a new pair of knickers out of an old garment for a neighbour who had
many children, the while a girl waited to have a new frock made out of
an old dress that had been purchased probably at a street causeway
auction, when, “A penn’orth of coal, please, Mrs. Jenkins!” The voice
came from the coal depot. Mrs. Jenkins got up from her machine. “John,
can you come down and attend to the shop?” I heard a step on the bedroom
floor above me, and presently John, weak and gasping, descended the
stairs, passed through the little room and through the glass door, and
served the pennyworth of coal; came back, and, delivering the penny to
his wife, gasped his way upstairs again. “How much coal do you give for
a penny?” I asked Mrs. Jenkins. “Six pounds.” “Why, that is above one
shilling and sixpence halfpenny per hundredweight–nearly thirty-two
shillings per ton,” I said. “Yes, sir, it is dear buying it by
penn’orths, but I can’t sell it any cheaper.” “How much do you give for
a ton?” I asked, for I had not then been in the coal depot, or I need
not have asked. “Oh, sir, we never get a ton; I buy it by the
hundredweight from the trolly-man, and give one and fourpence the
hundredweight.” “Do you get full weight from the trolly-man?” “Well, we
don’t get anything over; but the London County Council has looked after
them so sharply that they dare not give us short weight now.” “But there
is some dirt and slack in every sack you buy.” “Yes, but I burn that
myself with a bit of coke.” She then continued: “I wish the poor people
would always buy fourteen pounds.” “Why?” “Well, it would be better for
them, you see; we only charge them twopence farthing for fourteen
pounds, so it comes cheaper to them.” “Yes,” I said, “they would save
one halfpenny when they had bought eight lots of coal.” “Yes, sir. I
make just twopence on a hundredweight when they buy it like that.” “No,”
I said, “you don’t, for you cannot make eight complete lots out of one
sack.”

“Fourteen pounds of coal, please, Mrs. Jenkins!” Again a voice came from
the depot. “John! John!” Again John came wearily downstairs to weigh the
coal. He returned with twopence halfpenny, which he handed to his wife,
and said: “A farthing change.”

Mrs. Jenkins searched her small pile of coppers, but failed to find a
farthing. “Is it Mrs. Brown?” she asked her husband. “Yes,” was the
reply. “Oh, then give her the halfpenny back, and tell her to owe me the
farthing.” John went into the shop, taking the halfpenny with him, and I
heard a discussion going on, after which John returned with the coin,
and said: “She won’t take it.” But Mrs. Brown followed him into the room
with her fourteen pounds of coal in a small basket. “No, Mrs. Jenkins, I
can’t take it; I owe you two farthings now. If you keep the ha’penny I
shall only owe you one, and I’ll try and pay that off next time.” “Never
mind what you owe me, Mrs. Brown; you take the ha’penny. You have little
children, and have no husband to work for you like I have,” was Mrs.
Jenkins’s reply. But Mrs. Brown was not to be put down, so after a
protracted discussion the halfpenny remained in the possession of Mrs.
Jenkins, and poor feeble John retired to rest.

I sat wondering at it all, quite lost in thought. Presently Mrs. Jenkins
said: “I wish Mrs. Brown had taken that ha’penny.” “Why?” I said. “Well,
you see, she has little children who have no father, and they are so
badly off.” “But you are badly off, too. Your husband is ill, and ought
to be in the hospital; he is not fit to be about.” “I rest him all I
can, but this afternoon I have these knickers and frock to make; that
work pays better than coal when I can get it.” “How much rent do you
pay?” “Fifteen shillings and sixpence a week, but I let off seven and
sixpence, so my rent comes to eight shillings.” “But you lose your
tenant sometimes, and the rooms are empty?” “Yes.” “And sometimes you
get a tenant that does not pay up?” “Yes.” “And sometimes you allow poor
women to have coal on credit, and you lose in that way?” “Yes,” she
said, and added slowly: “I wish I could have all that is owing to me.”
“Show me some of your debts.” We went into the coal depot. “I have had
to stop that woman,” she said, pointing to a name and a lot of figures
chalked up on a board. She owes me one and elevenpence farthing.” I
reckoned up the account. “Quite correct,” I said.

“She had sixteen lots of coal for one and elevenpence farthing; she
can’t pay me at all now, she is so far behind. I ought to have stopped
her before, but I did not like to be hard on her.” Several other
“chalked up” accounts confronted me–one for sixpence, another for
ninepence–but that one and elevenpence farthing was the heaviest
account. It was too pitiful; I could inquire no further.

The difficulty of obtaining even minute quantities of coal constitutes
one of the great anxieties of the very poor, and exposes them to
unimaginable suffering and hardship.

To poor old women with chilly bones and thin blood, who especially need
the glow and warmth of a substantial fire, the lack of coal constitutes
almost, and in many cases quite, tragedy.

The poorest class of home-workers, who require warmth if their fingers
are to be nimble and their boxes or bags are to be dried, must have some
sort of a fire, even if it be obtained at the expense of food. Small
wonder, then, that their windows are seldom opened, for the heat of the
room must not be dissipated; they must be thrifty in that respect.
During the winter, generally in January, I set out on a tour of
discovery, my object being to find out old widows who manage to keep
themselves without parish relief, and get their little living by making
common articles for everyday use. Formerly I experienced great
difficulty in finding the brave old things; I have no difficulty now,
for at a day’s notice I can assemble five hundred self-supporting widows
to whom a single hundredweight of coal would loom so large that it would
appear a veritable coal-mine.

So I ask my readers to accompany me on one of these expeditions–in
imagination, of course. Come, then, through this side-door, for it
stands open, though not invitingly so, for the stairs are uncarpeted and
dirty and the walls are crumbling and foul.

We pass the room on the ground-floor, and observe that it is half
workshop and half retail-shop, for old furniture is renovated and placed
in the shop-window for sale. Up one flight of unwashed stairs and past
another workshop–this time a printer’s. Up again! The stairs are still
narrow, and the walls are still crumbling, the stairs still unwashed. We
pass another workshop, mount more stairs, and then we come to a small
landing and some narrow, very narrow, stairs that are scrupulously
clean, though innocent of carpet or linoleum.

We are now at the very top of the house and in semi-darkness, but we
discover the door of the room we are looking for. On rapping, we are
told to “Come in.” It is a small attic, just large enough to contain a
bed, a table, and a small chest of drawers.

She sat at the table underneath the dormer window, and was busy at work
making paper bags: a widow alone in the world, seventy-eight years of
age, who had never received one penny from the parish in her life. Take
notice of the little bedroom grate. It is a very small one, but you
notice it is made much smaller by two pieces of brick being placed in
it, one on each side, and between them a very small fire is burning, or
trying to burn. She tells us that she gets fivepence per thousand for
her paper bags, and that she buys her own paste; that she works for her
landlord, who stops her rent every week out of her earnings. She buys
her coal by the quarter of a hundredweight, which costs her fivepence;
she does not buy pennyworths. Sometimes the men below give her bits of
wood, and the printer lets her have scraps of cardboard. She can’t do
with less than two quarters in the week, it is so cold, but she manages
with a bit less in the summer-time. So the brave old woman gabbles on,
telling us all we want to know. I produce some warm clothing, and her
old eyes glisten; I give her a whole pound of tea in a nice canister,
and I think I see tears; but I take her old skinny hand, all covered
with paste, and say: “You must buy a whole hundredweight of good coal
with that, or give it back to me; you must not use it for anything
else.” Ah, this was indeed too much for her, and she burst out
hysterically: “Oh, don’t mock me–a hundredweight of coal! I’ll soon
have those bricks out.”

Come with me into another street. We have no stairs to climb this time,
for the house consists of but two stories, and contains but four small
rooms. We enter the front room on the ground-floor, and find three old
women at work. There being no room or accommodation for us to sit, we
stand just inside and watch them as they work. Two are widows bordering
on seventy years of age; the other is a spinster of like years. One sits
at a machine sewing trousers, of which there is a pile waiting near her.
As soon as she has completed her portion of work she passes the trousers
on to the other widow, who finishes them–that is, she puts on the
buttons, sewing the hem round the bottom of the trousers, and does all
the little jobs that must needs be done by hand. When her part of the
work is completed, she passes the trousers on to the spinster, who has
the heaviest part of the task, for she is the “presser,” and manipulates
the hot and heavy iron that plays such an important part in the work.
Each of them occupies one of the four rooms in the house, but for
working purposes they collaborate and use the widow machinist’s room;
for collaboration increases their earnings and lessens their expenses,
for the one room is also used for the preparation and consumption of
food. One kettle, one teapot, and one frying-pan do for the three. Old
and weak as they are, they understand the value of co-operation and the
advantages to be obtained by dividing labour. But they understand
something else much better, for “one fire does for the three,” and the
fire that heats the iron warms the room for three, and boils the kettle
for three. Talk about thrift! Was there ever seen that which could
eclipse these three old women in the art and virtue of saving? Thrift
and economy! Why, the three poor old souls fairly revelled in it. They
could give points to any of the professional teachers of thrift who know
so much about the extravagance of the poor. One gaslight served for the
three, and when a shilling was required to gently induce the automatic
gas-meter to supply them with another too brief supply of light, the
shilling came from common funds; and when the long day’s work was done,
and the old widow machinist prepared to lie down in the little bed that
had been erstwhile covered with trousers, the other widow and aged
spinster went aloft to their little rooms to light their little lamps
and to count themselves happy if they possessed a bit of wood and a few
crumbs of coal wherewith to make the morning fire. If not so fortunate,
then, late and cold though the night be, they must sally forth to the
nearest general shop, and with a few hardly-earned coppers lay in a
fresh stock, and return laden with one pint of paraffin oil, one
halfpennyworth of firewood, one pennyworth of coal, and most likely with
one pennyworth of tea-dust. And in such course their lives will run till
eyesight fails or exhausted nature gives way, and then the workhouse
waits.

It is the old widow machinist that talks to us, but she keeps on
working. Her machine whirrs and creaks and rattles, for it is an old
one, and its vital parts are none too good; and the old woman speaks to
it sometimes as if it were a sentient thing, and reproves it when a
difficulty arises. In her conversation with us frequent interjections
are interposed that sometimes appeared uncomplimentary to us: “Now,
stupid!” “Ah! there you are at it again!” But when she explained that
she was referring to her machine and not to us, we forgave her.

“I have had this machine for twenty-one years, and it has been a good
one. I bought it out of my husband’s club and insurance money.” “How
much did you have altogether?” “Twenty pounds, and I paid for his
funeral and bought my mourning and this machine, and it’s been a friend
to me ever since, so I can’t help talking to it; but it wants a new
shuttle.” “How much will that cost?” “Five shillings!” “Let me buy one
for you.” “I don’t want to part with the old one yet. It will perhaps
last my time, for I want a new shuttle, too. We are both nearly worn
out;” and the machinist kept on with her work, and the other widow with
her finishing, and the aged spinster with her pressing.

Oh, brave old women! We are lost in wonder and veneration. Utilitarians
and the apostles of thrift tell us that the poor are demoralized by
“charity,” and of a surety indiscriminate giving without knowledge and
personal service is often ill bestowed. But in the presence of three old
women possessed of heroic souls, living as they lived, working as they
worked, who cares for utilitarianism or political economy either? A fig
for the pair of them!

“But,” say our teachers, “you are in reality subsidizing their
employers, who exploit them and pay them insufficiently.” Another
self-appointed teacher says: “Ah! but you are only helping them to pay
exorbitant rents; the landlord will profit.” Who cares? Others, in very
comfortable circumstances, who themselves are by no means averse to
receiving gifts, say: “Don’t destroy the independence of the poor.”
Wisdom, prudence, political economy, go, hang yourselves! we cry. Our
love is appealed to, our hearts are touched, our veneration is kindled,
and we must needs do something, though the landlord may profit, though
the employer may be subsidized–nay, though we run the terrible risk of
tarnishing the glorious privilege and record of these independent old
women–a record nearly completed. Help them we must, and we bid defiance
to consequences. So we find the “trolly-man,” and three separate bags of
good coal are borne into three separate rooms. A whole hundredweight for
each woman! Where could they put it all? What an orgie of fire they
would have! Would the methodical thrift of the old women give way in the
face of such a temptation?

We don’t care: we have become hardened; and we even promise ourselves
that other bags of coal shall follow. Then we examine their tea-caddies,
and throw this tea-dust on the fire–a fitting death for it, too–and
further demoralize the ancient three with the gift of a pound of good
tea, each in a nice cannister, too. A hundredweight of coal and a pound
of tea! Why, the teapot will be always in use till the pound is gone.
The poor drink too much tea. Perhaps so; but what are the poor to drink?
They have neither time, inclination, nor money for the public-house.
Coffee is dear if it is to be good. Cocoa is thick and sickly. Water!
Their water!–ugh! At present poor old women have the choice of tea or
nothing. Then leave them, we beseech you, their teapot, but let us see
to it that they have some decent tea. So, with five shillings in silver
for each of them, we leave the dauntless three to their fire, their
teapots, and wonder, and go into the streets with the feeling that
something is wrong somewhere, but what it is and how to right it we know
not.

I could, were it necessary, multiply experiences similar to the above,
but they would only serve to prove, what I have already made apparent,
that the worries and sufferings of the very poor are greatly aggravated
by their inability to procure a reasonable supply of coal. Slate-clubs,
men’s meetings, and brotherhoods have of late years done much to secure
artisans and working men who are earning decent wages a supply of good
coal all the year round. Weekly payments of one shilling and upwards
enable them to lay in a store when coal is cheap–if it is ever
cheap–or to have an arrangement with the coal merchant for the delivery
of a specified amount every week. People possessed of commodious
coal-cellars may buy largely when coal prices are at their lowest; but
the poor–the very poor–can neither buy nor store, for they have
neither storehouses nor barns. Even if they could, by the exercise of
great self-denial, manage to pay a sum of sixpence per week into a local
coal-club, they have nowhere to put the supply when sent home to them.
They must needs buy in very small quantities only. The advantages of
co-operation are not for them, but are reserved for those that are
better off. One scriptural injunction, at any rate, the community holds
with grim tenacity: “To him that hath it shall be given.”

Yet I have seen attempts at co-operation among the poorest, for one
Christmas-time, when the weather was terribly severe, and when, as
becomes a Christian country, the one great necessity of life among the
poor was put up to a fabulous price, I knew four families living in one
house to contribute threepence per family wherewith to purchase
fifty-six pounds of coal that they might have extra fire at that happy
season. Some of the very poor buy pennyworths of coke to mix with their
coal, but though coke seems cheaper, it only flatters to deceive, for it
demands greater draught, and it must be consumed in larger quantities.
If for economy’s sake a good draught and a generous supply be denied, it
sullenly refuses to burn at all, and gives off fumes that might almost
challenge those of a motor-car. The lives of many young children have
been sacrificed by attempts to burn coke in small rooms where the
draught necessary for good combustion has not existed. Certainly coke is
no friend to the very poor. There are still meaner purchases of firing
material than pennyworths of coal or pennyworths of coke, for
halfpennyworths of cinders are by no means uncommon. A widow of my
acquaintance who had several young children startled me one day when I
was in her room by calling out, “Johnny, take the bucket and run for a
ha’porth of cinders and a farthing bundle of wood.” The farthing bundle
of firewood I knew of old–and a fraudulent fellow I knew him to be,
made up especially for widows and the unthrifty poor–but the
halfpennyworth of cinders was a new item to me. I felt interested, and
decided to remain till Johnny returned. He was not long away, for it was
the dinner-hour, and the boy had to get back to school. He was but a
little fellow, and by no means strong, yet he carried the bucket of
cinders and firewood easily enough. When the boy had gone to school the
widow turned to me as if apologizing for wasting three farthings. “I
must have some fire for the children when they come in.” “Aren’t you
going to make the fire up for yourself? It will soon be out, and it is
very cold to-day.” “No; I am going to work hard, and the time soon goes.
I shall light it again at half-past four,” said the unthrifty widow.
Meanwhile I had inspected the cinders, which I found to be more than
half dirt, fit only for a dust-destructor, but certainly not fit to burn
in a living-room. “Do you buy cinders by weight or measure?” “I think he
measures them.” “How much have you got here?” “Two quarts.” “Do you see
that quite half is dirt?” “They are dirty. I expect he has nearly sold
out. When he has a fresh lot we get better cinders, for the small and
the dirt get left till the last.” “I suppose he will not have a fresh
supply in till he has cleared the last?” “No; he likes to sell out
first. One day when I complained about them he said: ‘Ah! they are
pretty bad. Never mind! the more you buy, the sooner they’ll be gone;
then we’ll have a better lot.'” “How many fires will your cinders make?”
“Two, if I put a bit of coal with them.” “Do you ever buy a
hundredweight of coal?” “Not since my husband died. I try to buy a
quarter twice a week.” “How much do you give for a quarter?”
“Five-pence.” “How many fires can you light with your farthing bundle of
wood?” “Two, if I don’t use some of it to make the kettle boil.” “How
much rent do you pay?” “Five shillings for two rooms.”

Poor widow! Because ye have not, even the little that ye have is of a
truth taken from you.

One hundred pairs of old boots and shoes that have been cast off by the
very poor present a deplorable sight–a sight that sets one thinking.
Many times I have regretted that I did not call in a photographer before
they were hurried off to the local dust-destructor. What a tale they
told! or rather what a series of tragedies they revealed! There was a
deeply pathetic look about every pair: they looked so woefully, so
reproachfully, at me as I contemplated them. They seemed to voice not
only their own sufferings, but also the wrongs and privations of the
hundred poor widows who had discarded them; for these widows, poor as
they were, had cast them off. The boots and shoes seemed to know all
about it, and to resent the slight inflicted on them; henceforth even
the shambling feet of poor old women were to know them no more. They had
not a coy look among them; not an atom of sauciness or independence
could I discover; but, crushed and battered, meek and humiliated, they
lay side by side, knowing their days were over, and pitifully asking for
prompt dissolution. What a mixed lot they were! No two pairs alike.
Some of the couples were not pairs, for a freak of fortune had united
odd boots in the bond of sufferings and the gall of poverty. Many of
them had come down in life; they had seen better days. Well-dressed
women had at some time stepped daintily in them, but that was when the
sheen of newness was upon them and the days of their youth were not
ended. In those days the poor old boots were familiar with parks,
squares, and gardens, and well-kept streets of the West; but latterly
they have only been too familiar with the slums and the grime of the
East. How I wished they could speak and tell of the past! How came it
about that, after such a splendid beginning, they had come to such a
deplorable end? Had the West End lady died? Had her wardrobe been sold
to a dealer? What had been the intermediate life of the boots before
they were placed, patched and cobbled, in the dirty window of a fusty
little second-hand shop in Hoxton? I know the widow that bought them and
something of her life; I can appreciate the effort she made to get
possession of them. She paid two shillings and sixpence for them, but
not all at once–oh dear, no! Week by week she carried threepence to the
man who kept the fusty little shop. He cheerfully received her payments
on account, meanwhile, of course, retaining possession of the coveted
boots. It took her four months to pay for them, for her payments had not
been quite regular. What would have become of the payments made if the
widow had died before the completion of purchase, I need not say, but I
am quite sure the boots would have speedily reappeared in the shop
window. But, after all, I am not sure that the old cobbler was any worse
in his dealings with the poor than more respectable people are; for
pawnbroking, money-lending, life assurance, and furniture on the hire
system among the poor are founded on exactly the same principles. How
much property has been lost, how many policies have been forfeited,
because poor people have been unable to keep up their payments, we do
not know; if we did, I am quite sure that it would prove a revelation.
In this respect the thriftiness of the poor is other people’s gain.

It was a triumph of pluck and grit, for at the end of four long months
the widow received her cobbled boots. Her half-crown had been completed.
“I had them two years; they lasted me well–ever so much better than a
cheap new pair,” the widow told me; nevertheless, she was glad to leave
them behind and go home with her feet shod resplendently in a new pair
of seven-and-elevenpenny. She might venture to lift the front of her old
dress now as she crossed the street, and I am sure that she did not
forget to do it, for she was still a woman, in spite of all, and had
some of that quality left severe people call vanity, but which I like to
think of as self-respect.

“How is it,” I was asked by a critical lady, “that your poor women let
their dresses drag on the pavement and crossings? I never see any of
them lift their dresses behind or in front. They must get very dirty and
insanitary.” “My dear madam,” I replied, “they dare not, for neither
their insteps nor their heels are presentable; but give them some new
boots, and they will lift their dresses often enough and high enough.”

There was another pair, too, that had come down, and they invited
speculative thought. They were not born in the slums or fitted for the
slums, but they came into a poor widow’s possession nevertheless. They
had not been patched or cobbled, and just enough of their former glory
remained to allow of judgment being passed upon them. They had been
purchased at a “jumble sale” for threepence, and were dear at the price.
The feet that had originally worn them had doubtless trodden upon
carpet, and rested luxuriantly upon expensive hearthrugs. They were
shoes, if you please, with three straps across the insteps, high,
fashionable heels, buckles and bows in front. But their high heels had
disappeared, the buckles had long since departed, the instep straps were
broken and dilapidated, the pointed toes were open, and the heels were
worn down. When completely worn out and unmendable, some lady had sent
them to a local clergyman for the benefit of the poor. I gazed on them,
and then quite understood, not for the first time, that there is a kind
of charity that demoralizes the poor, but it is a charity that is not
once blessed.

Here was an old pair of “Plimsolls,” whose rubber soles had long ago
departed; there a pair of shoes that had done duty at the seaside, whose
tops had originally been brown canvas, and whose soles had been
presumably leather; here a pair of “lace-ups”; there a pair of
“buttons”–but the lace-holes were all broken, and buttons were not to
be seen.

But whatever their style and make had been, and whoever might have been
their original wearers, they had now one common characteristic–that of
utter and complete uselessness. I ought to have been disgusted with the
old rubbish, but somehow the old things appealed to me, though they
seemed to reproach me, and lay their social death to my charge and their
present neglect to my interference. But gladness was mixed with pathos,
for I knew that a hundred widows had gone to their homes decently booted
on a dismal Christmas Eve.

But now, leaving the old boots to the fate that awaited them, I will
tell of the women who had so recently possessed them.

It had long been a marvel to me how the very poor obtained boots of any
sort and kind. I had learned so much of their lives and of their ways
and means that I realized boots and shoes for elderly widows or young
widows with children must be a serious matter. Accordingly, at this
particular Christmas I issued, on behalf of the Home Workers’ Aid
Association, invitations to one hundred widows to my house, where each
widow was to receive a new pair of boots and Christmas fare. They came,
all of them, and as we kept open house all day, I had plenty of time to
converse with them individually. I learned something that day, so I want
to place faithfully before my readers some of the things that happened
and some of the stories that were told.

One of the first to arrive was an elderly widow, accompanied by her
epileptic daughter, aged thirty. I looked askance at the daughter, and
said to the widow: “I did not invite your daughter.” “No, sir; but I
thought you would not mind her coming.” “But I do mind, for if every
widow brings a grown-up daughter to-day I shall have two hundred women
instead of one hundred.” “I am very sorry, sir; but I could not come
without her.” They sat down to some food, and my wife looked up a few
things for the daughter. “Now for the boots,” I said. “Of course, we
cannot give your daughter a pair.” “No,” said the widow; “we only want
one pair.” I knew what was coming, for I had taken stock of the
daughter, who was much bigger than her mother. “What size do you take?”
“Please, sir, can my daughter try them on?” “No; the boots are for you.”
“Oh yes, sir, they will be my boots, but please let my daughter try them
on.” It was too palpable, so I said: “Your daughter has bigger feet than
you have.” “Yes, sir.” “And you want a pair that will fit either of
you?” “Yes, sir.” “Then when you go out you will wear them?” “Oh yes,
sir.” “And when your daughter goes out, she will wear them–in fact, you
want a pair between you?” “Yes, sir,” the reply came eagerly from both.
“Well, put your right feet forward.” They did, and there was no doubt
about it: mother and daughter both stood sadly in need, though they
scarcely stood in boots; no doubt, either, as to the relative sizes. The
daughter required “nines” and the mother “fives.” I gave them a note to
a local shopkeeper, where the daughter was duly fitted, so they went
away happy, because they jointly possessed a new pair of
“seven-and-elevenpenny’s.” But whether the widow ever wore them, I am
more than doubtful. It is the self-denial of the very poor that touches
me. It is so wonderful, so common, perhaps, that we do not notice it. It
is so unobtrusive and so genuine. We never find poor widows jingling
money-boxes in the streets and demanding public contributions because it
is their “self-denial week.” Their self-denial lasts through life, but
the public are not informed of it. I fancy that I should have had an
impossible task if I had asked, or tried to persuade, the widow to go
into the streets and solicit help because she had denied herself a pair
of boots for the sake of her afflicted daughter. Oh, it is very
beautiful, but, alas! it is very sad. The poor couple worked at home in
their one room when they had work to do and when the daughter’s fits did
not prevent. They made “ladies’ belts,” and starved at the occupation.

Another widow had four young children; her feet were partly encased in a
flimsy pair of broken patent slippers. She, too, had her note to the
shoemaker’s.

A deep snow fell during the night, and on the morning of Boxing Day it
lay six inches deep. I thought of the widows and their sound boots, and
felt comforted; but my complacency soon vanished. I was out early in the
streets, warmly clad, spurning the snow–in fact, rather enjoying
it–and thinking, as I have said, with some pleasure of the widows and
their boots, when I met the widow who has four young children. She was
for hurrying past me, but I stopped her and spoke. “A bitter morning,
this.” “Yes, sir; is it not a deep snow?” “I am so glad you have sound
boots. You had them just in time. Your old slippers would not have been
of much use a morning like this.” “No, sir.” “Did you get what suited
you?” “Yes, sir.” “Fit you all right?” “Yes, sir.” “Did you have buttons
or lace-up?” “Lace-up, sir.” “That’s right. Lift up the front of your
dress. I want to see whether the shopman has given you a good pair.” She
began to cry, and, to my astonishment, the old broken patent slippers
were revealed, half buried in the snow. “Don’t be cross,” she burst out.
“I did not mean to deceive you. I got two pairs for the children: they
wanted them worse than I do.”

I learned afterwards from the shopman that she added a shilling to the
cost of a pair for herself, and the shopman, being kind-hearted, gave
her another shilling, so she went home with her two pairs of strong
boots for her boys. Of course, I told her that she had done wrong–I
even professed to be angry; but I think she saw through my pretence.
What can be done for, or with, such women? How can anyone help them when
they are so deceitful? However, I forgave her, and confirmed her in her
wickedness by next day sending the shop assistant to her home with
several pairs of women’s boots that she might select a pair for herself.
That kind of deceit has an attraction for me.

“How long have you been a widow?” I asked one of the women. “Twelve
years, sir.” “How long is it since you had a new pair of boots?” “Not
since my husband’s funeral, sir.” Twelve long years since she felt the
glow of satisfaction that comes from the feeling of being well shod;
twelve years since she listened to the ringing sound of a firm heel in
brisk contact with the pavement; twelve years she had gone with that
muffled, almost noiseless sound so peculiar to poor women, telling as it
does of old slippers or of boots worn to the uppers! What a pity, when
so many shoemakers are seeking customers! There is a tremendous moral
force in a new pair of boots that possess good firm heels. Everybody
that hears them knows instinctively what the sound means, and the
neighbours say: “Mrs. Jones is getting on a bit: she is wearing a new
pair of boots. Didn’t you hear them?”

Hear them! Of course they had heard them, and had been jealous of them,
too; but that kind of music is not heard every day among London’s very
poor, and for a time Mrs. Jones was on a higher plane than her
neighbours; but by-and-by she comes back to them, for the heels wear
away, and she has no others to put on whilst they are repaired, so
gradually they slip down to the chronic condition of poor women’s boots;
then Mrs. Jones’s ringing footsteps are heard no more.

My shopman told me that he had been in a difficulty; he could not find a
pair of boots large enough for one young widow. He searched his store,
and found a pair–size eleven–that he had had by him for some years;
but, alas! size eleven was not big enough. He offered to procure a last
of sufficient proportion and make a pair of boots for her, kindly saying
that he would not charge anything extra for size. I told him to get a
proper last made for the young woman, who took “twelves.” This he did,
so now a poor blouse-maker, who keeps an aged and invalid mother, has
her boots made to order, and built upon her own “special last.” When I
had made this arrangement, I was puzzled to know in what way she had
previously obtained boots, so I asked him: “What boots was she wearing
when she came to your shop?” He laughed, and said: “A very old pair of
men’s tennis-shoes–of large size, too.” I had known her for many years,
and had admired her cleanliness and neatness. I had known, too, how
miserable her earnings were, and how many demands her aged mother made
upon her. She was upright in carriage, and of good appearance;
self-respecting, and eminently respectable, she carried her secret
nobly, though the dual burden of size twelves and men’s tennis-shoes
must have been very trying. I told her of our arrangement about the
last, but, of course, made no reference to the dimensions of her feet;
but I often wonder how she felt when she put on her new boots.