THE HEROISM OF THE SLUMS

Present-day excitements have killed the “hooligan” scare. Good nervous
people now sleep comfortably in their beds, for the cry of “The
hooligans! the hooligans!” is no longer heard in our land. Yet, truth to
tell, the evil is greater now than when sensational writers boomed it.
It grows, and will continue to grow, until the conditions that produce
it are seriously tackled by the State. I must confine myself to the
hooliganism of the poor. Of the hooliganism of undergraduates, medical
students, stockbrockers, and politicians I say nothing. Of Tommy Atkins
on furlough or of Jack ashore I wish to be equally silent. But of the
class, born and bred in London slums, who do no regular work, but who
seem to live on idleness and disorder, I desire to speak
plainly–plainly, too, as to the conditions that are largely responsible
for the disorderly conduct of the rising youth.

A large number of undoubtedly good people think it is easy to cure by
punitive methods. I do not. “A policeman behind every lamp-post and the
lash–the lash!” cried a notable divine during a never-to-be-forgotten
week when he edited an evening paper. Such was his recipe! For months
the cat with nine tails was a favourite theme, and all sorts of people
caught the infection, and there was a great cry and commotion raised and
sustained by a sensational but altogether inaccurate press. Every
assault committed by a labouring man, every bit of disorder in the
streets, if caused by the poor and ignorant, was a signal for the cry
“The hooligan again!” Rubbish! But the people believed it, and so to
some extent our level-headed and kind-hearted magistrates caught the
spirit of the thing, and proceeded to impose heavier sentences on boys
charged with disorderly conduct in the streets. But this was not enough,
for the Home Secretary (Mr. Ritchie) in the House of Commons, in reply
to a question about youthful hooligans, said it was thought that the
magistrates had been too lenient with them, and stated that the police
had orders to charge those young gentlemen on indictment, so that they
might not be dealt with summarily, but committed for trial. In other
words, they were to take from the magistrates the power of so-called
lenient punishment, and have them tried by judge and jury. Very good,
but what good longer terms of imprisonment would do, the Home Secretary
did not say; and as to the magistrates, they can be severe enough,
though they do know when to be lenient, and in aggravated cases they
already commit for trial.

Profoundly I wish that all Home Secretaries would exercise their minds
on the causes that lead to youthful hooliganism, and do something to
remove them. It were better far than taking steps to secure more severe
punishment. Such talk to me seems callous and cruel, for punitive
methods will never eradicate the instincts that lead to disorderly
conduct in the streets among the “young gentry” of the poor. I must
confess to a feeling of discomfort when I see a boy of sixteen sent to a
month’s imprisonment for disorderly conduct in the streets. It is true
that he has been a nuisance to his elders, and has bumped against them
in running after his pals. Equally true that he uses language repulsive
to ears polite; but to him it is ordinary language, to which he has been
accustomed his life through. But I am afraid it is equally true that
similar offences committed by others in a better position would be more
leniently dealt with. Would anyone suggest that a public-school boy, or
a soldier on furlough, or a young doctor, or an enthusiastic patriot,
should be committed for trial on a like charge? I trow not. Allowances
are made, and it is right they should be made. I claim these allowances
for the poor and the children of the poor.

Moreover, if these “young gentry” are to be consigned in wholesale
fashion to prison, will it lessen the evil? I think not. On the
contrary, it will largely increase it. Some of them will have lost the
moderate respectability that stood for them in place of character; many
of them will lose their work, and will join the increasing army of
loafers; but all of them will lose their fear of prison, that fear of
the unknown that is the greatest deterrent from crime and disorder.
Familiarize these “young gentry” with prison, and it is all over with
them. The sense of fear will depart, and to a dead certainty more
serious disorder and grosser crime will follow. Undoubtedly many of them
will find prison quarters preferable to their own homes, and though they
may resent the loss of liberty, they will find some comfort in the fact
that they do not have to share with four others an apology for a bed,
fixed in an apology for a room, of which the door cannot be opened fully
because the bedstead prevents it.

If our law-makers, our notable divines, and our good but nervous people
had to live under such conditions, I venture to say they would rush into
the streets for change of air; and if any steam were left in them, who
can doubt but that they would let it off somehow? Under present
conditions, the “young gentry” have the choice of two evils–either to
stay in their insufferable homes or to kick up their heels in the
streets. But this includes two other contingencies–either to become
dull-eyed, weak-chested, slow-witted degenerates, or hooligans. Of the
two, I prefer the latter. The streets are the playgrounds of the poor,
and the State has need to be thankful, in spite of the drawback in
disorder and crime, for the strength and manhood developed in them. It
will be a sorry day for England when the children of the poor, after
being dragooned to school, are dragooned from the streets into the
overcrowded tenements called home. Multiply large towns, run the
“blocks” for the poor up to the skies, increase the pains and penalties
for youthful disorder, and omit to make provision for healthy, vigorous,
competitive play: then we may write “Ichabod” over England, for its
glory and strength will be doomed. Wealth may accumulate, but men will
decay. Robust play, even though it be rough, is an absolute condition of
physical and moral health.

Consider briefly how the poor live. Thousands of families with three
small rooms for each family, tens of thousands with two small rooms, a
hundred thousand with one room. And such rooms! Better call them boxes.
Dining-room and bedroom, kitchen and scullery, coal-house and
drawing-room, workshop and wash-house, all in one. Here, one after
another, the children are born; here, one after another, many of them
die. I went into one of these “combines,” and saw an infant but a few
days old with its mother on a little bed; in another corner, in a box,
lay the body of another child of less than two years, cold and still. I
felt ill, but I also felt hot. I protest it is no wonder that our boys
and girls seek the excitement of the streets, or that they find comfort
in “dustbins.” What can big lads of this description do in such
surroundings? Curl up and die, or go out and kick somebody. The pity of
it is that they always kick the wrong person, but that’s no wonder.
Tread our narrow streets, where two-storied houses stand flush with the
pavements; explore our courts, alleys, and places; climb skyward in our
much-belauded dwellings; or come even into our streets that look snugly
respectable. You will find them teeming with juvenile life that has
learned its first steps in the streets, got its first idea of play in
the gutter, and picked up its knowledge of the vulgar tongue from those
who have graduated in a gutter school. Is it any wonder that young
people developed under these conditions look upon the streets as their
natural right, and become oblivious to the rights of others? They are
but paying back what they have received. Neither is it to be wondered at
that as they grow older they grow more disorderly and violent, but
altogether less scrupulous. It is absurd to suppose that boys who have
grown into young men under these conditions will, on reaching manhood,
develop staid and orderly ways, and equally absurd to suppose that by
sending them for “trial” they will be made orderly.

Let us have less talk of punishment and more of remedy; and the remedy
lies, not with private individuals, but with the community. The
community must bear the cost or pay the penalty. Oxford and Cambridge
contend in healthy rivalry on the river, and the world is excited. Eton
plays Harrow at cricket, and society is greatly moved. A few horses race
at Epsom, and the people generally go wild. But when the Hackney boys
contend with the boys of Bethnal Green, why, that’s another tale. But
they cannot go to Lord’s or to Putney, so perforce they meet in the
places natural to them–the streets. “But they use belts!” Well, they
have no boxing-gloves, and it may comfort some folks to know that
generally they use the belts upon each other. The major part of
so-called youthful hooliganism is but the natural instinct of English
boys finding for itself an outlet–a bad outlet it may be, but, mind
you, the only outlet possible, though it is bound to grow into
lawlessness if suitable provision is not made for its legitimate
exercise.

At the close of one of my prison lectures, among the prisoners that
asked for a private interview was an undersized youth of nineteen, a
typical Cockney, sharp and cheeky as a London sparrow. He put out his
hand and said, “How do you do, Mr. Holmes?” looking up at me. I shook
hands with him, and said: “What are you doing here?” “Burglary, Mr.
Holmes,” he said. “Burglary?” I said–“burglary? I am sure God never
intended you for a burglar.” Looking up sharply, he said: “No, He would
have made me bigger, wouldn’t He? But I have had enough of prison,” he
said–“I’ve had enough. I’m going straight when I get out, and I shall
be out in three weeks. It is very good of you to come and talk to us,
and I am glad to know about all those men you have told us of; but I’ve
come to see you because I want you to tell me how I am to spend my spare
time when I am out. I am going back home to live. I’ve got a job to go
to–not much wages, though. I shall live in Hoxton, and I want to go
straight. If I get some books and read about those fellows you talked
of, I can’t read at home–there’s no room. If I go to the library I feel
a bit sleepy when I’ve been in a bit, and the caretaker comes along and
he gives me a nudge, and he says: ‘Waken up! This ain’t a
lodging-house.’ We have no cricket or football. There’s the streets for
me in my spare time, and then I’m in mischief. Now, you tell me what to
do, and I’ll do it.”

Municipal playgrounds are absolutely necessary if our young people are
to be healthy and law-abiding. Of parks we have enough at present. Our
so-called recreation-grounds are a delusion and a snare, though to some
they are doubtless a boon, with their asphalted walks, a few seats, and
a drinking-fountain. They are very good for the very old and the very
young; but if Tom, Dick, and Harry essayed a game of rounders, tip-cat,
leap-frog, or skittles, why, then they would soon find themselves before
the magistrate, and be the cause of many paragraphs on youthful
hooliganism in the next day’s papers. Now, private philanthropy and
individual effort is not equal to the task–and, in spite of increasing
effort and enlarged funds, never will be equal to the task–of finding
suitable recreation for our growing youth. I know well the great good
done by our public-school and other missions, with their boys’ clubs,
etc.; but they scarcely touch the evil, and they certainly have not the
means of providing winter and summer outdoor competitive games. Every
parish must have its public playground, under proper supervision, lit up
with electric light in the evening, and open till 10 p.m. Here such
inexpensive games as rounders, skittles, tip-cat, tug-of-war, might be
organized, and Hackney might have a series of competitions with Bethnal
Green, for the competitive element must be provided for. A series of
contests of this sort would soon empty our streets of the lads who are
now so troublesome. I venture to say that a tournament, even at “coddem”
or “shove-ha’penny” alone, would attract hundreds of them, and certainly
an organized competition of “pitch-and-toss” would attract thousands.
Counters might be used instead of coins, and they would last for ever.
The fact is, that these youths are easily pleased, if we go the right
way to work; but we must take them as they are, and must not expect them
all to play chess, billiards, and cricket. Football, I think, I would
certainly add, for it is a game which any healthy boy can play, and it
gives him robust exercise. Give the lads of our slums and congested
dwellings a chance of healthy rivalry and vigorous competition, and, my
word for it, they won’t want to crack the heads either of their
companions or the public. The public are not aware of the intense
longing of the slum youth for active, robust play. During last year more
than fifty boys were summoned at one court for playing football in the
streets and fined, though in some cases their footballs were old
newspapers tied round with string. Hundreds of youths are charged every
year at each of our London police-courts with gambling by playing a game
with bronze coins called “pitch-and-toss.” Now, these youths do not want
and long for each other’s coins, but they do want a game, and if they
could play all day and win nothing they would consider it an ideal game.
Organized games in public playgrounds, creating local and friendly
rivalry, are absolutely essential. The same feeling, developed but a
trifle further, becomes national, and we call it patriotism. Play they
must, or become loafers; and the round-shouldered, dull-eyed loafer is
altogether more hopeless than the hooligan.

It will be an inestimable blessing to the country, and will inaugurate
quite a new era for us, when the minimum age for leaving school is
raised to sixteen. The increase of intelligence, physique and morality,
and order arising from such a course would astonish the nation.
Supposing this were done, and for boys and girls of over twelve two
hours in the afternoon were set apart for games–in separate
playgrounds, of course–and that the evenings were devoted to
school-work. The younger children going to school in the afternoon might
easily have their turn in the public playgrounds from five to seven.
This would allow the youths over sixteen to have the playgrounds for the
rest of the evening. But, having provided for play, I would go one step
further, and not allow any boy to leave school till he produced
satisfactory evidence that he was really commencing work. Hundreds of
boys leave school having no immediate prospect of regular work. A few
weeks’ idleness and the enjoyment of the streets follow, and they are
then in that state of mind and body that renders them completely
indifferent to work of any kind. For good or for evil, the old system of
apprenticing boys has gone. It had many faults, but it had some virtues,
for, at any rate, it ensured a boy’s continuity of work in those years
when undisciplined idleness is certain to be demoralizing. Once let boys
from the homes I have described–or, indeed, from working men’s homes
generally–be released from the discipline of school, and the discipline
of reasonable and continuous work not be substituted, and it is all over
with them and honest aspirations. Now, this difficulty of finding decent
and prospective employment for boys is another great factor in the
production of youthful hooligans, but a factor that would be largely
eliminated if the age for leaving school were raised to sixteen. The
work of errand-boys, van-boys, or “cock-horse” boys is not progressive;
neither is it good training for growing boys. To the boys of fourteen
such work has its allurements, and the wages offered seem fairly good;
but when the boy of fourteen has become the youth of sixteen or
seventeen, the work seems childish, and the pay becomes mean. When he
requires better wages, his services are dispensed with, and another lad
of fourteen is taken on. This procedure alone accounts for thousands of
youths being idle upon the streets of London. What can such youths do?
Too big for their previous occupation, no skilled training or aptitude
for better work, not big or strong enough for ordinary labouring, they
become the despair of their parents and pests to society. Very soon the
door of the parental home is closed upon them; the cheap lodging-houses
become their shelter, and the rest can easily be imagined–but it lasts
for life. By raising the school age, the great bulk of this
demoralization would be prevented. Technical training in their school
years would give these youths a certain amount of aptitude and taste
that would enable them to commence life under more favourable
conditions, and though many of them would necessarily become errand-boys
or van-boys, still, the age at which they would leave those occupations
would find them nearer manhood, and in possession of greater strength
and more judgment than they can claim at the present age of leaving such
work. The step I am advocating would also remove another great cause of
lifelong misery and its accompanying hooliganism. Look again, if you
please, at the homes of the poor. Is it any wonder that when a youth
finds himself earning twelve shillings a week, and has arrived at the
mature age of eighteen, he enters into a certain relationship with a
girl of seventeen, who has a weekly income of six shillings? This
relationship may or may not be sanctioned by the law and blessed by the
Church; in either case it is equally immoral, and the effects are
equally blighting. How can healthy, virtuous, and orderly children come
from such unions?

Give the youth of our large towns a lengthened school-training, but at
the same time remember that athletic and technical training must form
part of that life; let healthy rivalry have a chance of animating them
and a feeling of manly joy sometimes pervade them, and these horrible,
wicked juvenile unions will be heard of no more; for at present their
only chances of enjoyment are the streets, sexuality, or the
public-house.

This last word leads me to another cause of hooliganism. The
public-house is bound up with the lives of the poor. To many it stands,
doubtless, for enjoyment and relaxation, for forgetfulness of misery and
discomfort, and for sociability. To many others it stands for poverty,
suffering, unspeakable sorrow, and gross neglect. Where our streets are
the narrowest, where the sanitary arrangements are of the most execrable
description, there the public-house thrives, and thrives with disastrous
effects. The home-life of the poor and the public-house act and react
on each other. The more miserable the home and the greater the dirt, the
more the public-house attracts; the more it attracts, the viler the
home-life and the greater misery and dirt. It is no marvel that people
who live thus demand fiery drinks; nor is it any great marvel that all
the tricks of science and all the resources of civilization are brought
to bear in manufacturing drinks for them. No wonder, when “the vitriol
madness flushes in the ruffian’s head,” that “the filthy by-lane rings
with the yell of the trampled wife.” But the State shares the profits
and the State shares the guilt. Long ago Cowper wrote:

“Drink and be mad, then–’tis your country bids:
Ye all can swallow, and she asks no more.”

The State does not care very much what compounds are served to the poor
so long as the sacred revenue is not defrauded. But the State cannot
escape the penalties. What of the offspring that issue from these homes
and these neighbourhoods? They have daily seen women with battered
faces; they have frequently seen the brutal kick, and heard the
frightful curse; they have been used to the public-house from their
infancy; whilst boys and girls have been allowed to join openly, and as
a matter of course, in the carousals, and stand shoulder to shoulder in
the bar and drink with seasoned topers. In the evening, when half drunk,
they patrol the streets or stand together at some congested corner. They
are not amenable to the influence of the police; they are locked up, and
the cry “The hooligans! the hooligans!” is heard in the land; and there
is a demand for more punishment, instead of a feeling of shame at the
conditions that produce such young people and at the temptations that
prevail amongst them. Can it be right–is it decent or wise?–that boys
and girls of sixteen should be allowed free access to public-houses,
with free liberty to drink at will? What can be expected but ribaldry,
indecency, disorder, and violence? A wise Government would protect these
young people against temptation and against themselves. No improvement
in the morals and conduct of the young is possible until this question
is tackled, and there ought to be no difficulty about tackling it. Let
the Home Secretary bring in a Bill, and pass it, making it illegal for
boys and girls under twenty to drink on licensed premises, and he will
do more good for public order than if he committed the whole of the
young gentry for trial.

But I would put in also a plea for their parents. It is evident that we
must have public-houses; it is also certain that the public have a taste
for, and demand, malt liquors and other alcoholic drinks. Now, the State
reaps many millions of its revenue from this demand. It is therefore the
duty of the State to see that these drinks are as harmless as possible.
Let the State, then, insist upon the absolute purity of malt liquors,
and also upon a reduction in their alcoholic strength; for, after all,
this is the cause of the mischief. In this direction lies the true path
of temperance reform. Supposing the alcoholic strength of malt
liquors–really malt liquors–was fixed by imperial statute at 2½ per
cent. by volume, who would be a penny the worse? The brewer and the
publican would get their profits, the Exchequer would get its pound of
flesh, the Englishman would get his beer–his “glorious beer!” No vested
interests would be attacked, and no disorganization of trade would be
caused; everybody concerned would be the better, for everybody would be
the happier. It may be thought that I am getting wide of my subject, but
even a superficial inquiry will soon lead anyone to the knowledge that
the public-house is intimately connected with, and a direct cause of,
what is termed “hooliganism.”

Alcohol, not the house, is really the cause. To leave the house still
popular, while largely taking away its dangerous element, would be a
wise course; but this should be followed by a much higher duty on
spirits and a law fixing the maximum of their alcoholic strength when
offered for public sale. Fifty per cent. under proof for spirits and an
alcoholic strength of 2½ per cent. for malt liquors would usher in the
millennium.

To sum up what I conceive to be the reforms necessary to the abatement
and cure of hooliganism:

1. Fair rents for the poor, and a fair chance of cleanliness and
decency.

2. Municipal playgrounds and organized competitive games.

3. Extension of school-life till sixteen.

4. Prohibition to young people of alcoholic drinks for consumption on
the premises.

5. Limitation by law of the alcoholic strength of malt liquor to 2½ per
cent. and of spirits to 50 per cent. under proof, with higher duty.

Give us reforms on these lines, and there will be no “complaining in our
streets.” The poorest of the poor, though lacking riches, will know
something of the wealth of the mind, for chivalry and manhood,
gentleness and true womanhood, will be their characteristics. The
rounded limbs and happy hearts of “glorious childhood” will be no longer
a dream or a fiction. No longer will the bitter cry be raised of “too
old” when the fortieth birthday has passed, for men will be in their
full manhood at sixty. Give us these reforms, and enable the poor to
live in clean and sweet content, then their sons shall be strong in body
and mind to fight our battles, to people our colonies, and to hand down
to future ages a goodly heritage. But there is a content born of
indifference, of apathy, of despair. There is the possibility that the
wretched may become so perfect in their misery that a wish for better
things and aspirations after a higher life may die a death from which
there is no resurrection. From apathetic content may God deliver the
poor! from such possibilities may wise laws protect them!
“Righteousness”–right doing–“exalteth a nation;” and a nation whose
poor are content because they can live in cleanliness, decency, and
virtue, where brave boyhood and sweet girlhood can bud, blossom, and
mature, is a nation that will dwell long in the land, and among whom the
doings of the hooligans will be no longer remembered.

In our narrow streets, in our courts and alleys, where the air makes one
sick and faint, where the houses are rotten and tottering, where
humanity is crowded and congested, where the children graduate in the
gutter–there the heights and depths of humanity can be sounded, for
there the very extremes of human character stand in striking contrast.
Could the odorous canals that intersect our narrow streets speak, they
would tell of many a dark deed, but, thank God! of many a brave deed
also. Numbers of “unfortunates,” weary of life, in the darkness of
night, and in the horror of a London fog, have sought oblivion in those
thick and poisonous waters. Men, too, weary from the heart-breaking and
ceaseless search after employment, and widows broken with hard work,
endless toil, and semi-starvation, have sought their doom where the
water lies still and deep.

THE HERO WITH THE LAVENDER SUIT.

Often in the fog the splash has been heard, but no sooner heard than
cries of “Let me die!” “Help! help!” have also risen on the midnight
air. One rough fellow of my acquaintance has saved six would-be suicides
from the basin of one canal, and on each occasion he has appeared to
give evidence in a police-court. Five times he had given his evidence
and quietly and quickly disappeared, but on the sixth occasion he waited
about the court for an opportunity of speaking to the magistrate. This
was at length given him, when he stated that he thought it about time
someone paid him for the loss he sustained in saving these people from
the canal. This was the sixth time he had attended a police-court to
give evidence, and each time he had lost a day’s pay. He did not mind
that so very much, as it was but the loss of four shillings at
intervals; but this time he had on a new suit, which cost him thirty
shillings. He had thrown off his coat and vest before jumping into the
water, and someone had stolen them; the dirty water had spoiled his
trousers, which he had dried and put on for his Worship to see. The
magistrate inspected the garments. They had been originally of that
cheap material that costers affect, and of a bright lavender colour. He
had jumped into an unusually nasty piece of water. Some tar and other
chemicals had been moving on its surface, and his lavender clothes had
received full benefit therefrom. The garments had been tight-fitting at
the first, but now, after immersion and drying, they were ridiculously
small. Even the magistrate had to smile, but he ordered the brave fellow
to receive five shillings for expenses and loss of day’s work, and ten
shillings compensation for damage to his clothing. He looked ruefully at
his ruined clothes and at the fifteen shillings in his hand, and went
out of the court. I went to speak to him. “Look here, Mr. Holmes,” he
said, “fifteen shillings won’t buy me a new lavender suit. The next
blooming woman that jumps in the canal ‘ll have to stop there; I’ve had
enough of this.” I made up the cost of a suit by adding to his fifteen
shillings, and he went away to get one. But I know perfectly well that,
whether he had on a new lavender suit or an old corduroy, it would be
all the same to him–into the canal, river, or any other water, he would
go instinctively when he heard the heavy splash in the darkness or fog.

AN AMUSING RESCUE.

An amusing episode occurred with regard to a would-be suicide in the
early part of one winter. A strong, athletic fellow, who had been a
teacher of swimming at one of the London public baths, but who had lost
position, had become homeless, and was quite on the down-grade. Half
drunk, he found himself on the banks of the Lea, where the water was
deep and the tide strong. Suddenly he called out, “I’ll drown myself!”
and into the water he went. The vagabond could not have drowned had he
wished, for he was as much at home in the water as a rat. It was a
moonlight night, and a party of men from Hoxton had come for a walk and
a drink. One was a little fellow, well known in the boxing-ring. He also
could swim a little, but not much. He heard the cry and the splash, and
saw the body of the man lying still on the water. In he went, swam to
the body, and took hold of it. Suddenly there was a great commotion,
for the little man had received a violent blow in the face from the
supposed suicide. A fight ensued, but the swimmer held a great advantage
over the boxer.

A boat arrived on the scene, and both were brought ashore exhausted. The
swimmer recovered first, and was for making off, but was detained by the
friends of the boxer, who, being recovered, walked promptly up to the
big man and proposed a fight to the finish. This was accepted, but the
little man was now in his element, and the big man soon had reason to
know it. After a severe handling, he was given into custody for
attempted suicide and assault, and appeared next day in the
police-court, with cuts and bruises all over his face. The charge of
attempted suicide was dismissed, but the magistrate fined him twenty
shillings for assault. “Look at my face.” “Yes,” said the magistrate;
“you deserve all that, and a month beside.”

I give these examples of manly pluck to show that, in spite of all the
demoralizing influence of slum life, and in spite of all the decay of
manhood that must ensue from the terrible conditions that prevail,
physical courage still exists among those born and bred in the slums,
under the worst conditions of London life.

MORE SLUM HEROES.

But higher kinds of courage are also manifested. Who can excel the
people of our slums in true heroism? None! If I want to find someone
that satisfies my ideal of what a hero should be, down into the Inferno
of the slums I go to seek him or her. It is no difficult search; they
are to hand, and I know where to light on them. The faces of my heroes
may be old and wrinkled, their arms may be skinny, and their bodies
enfeebled; they may be racked with perpetual pain, and live in dire but
reticent poverty; they may be working endless hours for three halfpence
per hour, or lie waiting and hoping for death; they may be male or they
may be female, for heroes are of no sex; but for examples of high moral
courage–a courage that bids them suffer and be strong–come with me to
the slums of London and see.

And how splendidly some of our poor widows’ boys rise to their duties!
What pluck, endurance, and enterprise they exhibit! Hundreds of such
boys, winter and summer alike, rise about half-past four, are at the
local dairy at five; they help to push milk-barrows till eight; and with
a piece of bread and margarine off they go to school. After school-hours
they are at the dairy again, washing the churns and milk-cans.
Sharp-witted lads, too. They know how to watch their milk on a dark
morning, and how to give evidence, too, when a thief is brought up. For
supreme confidence in himself and an utter lack of self-consciousness or
nervousness, commend me to these boys. They fear neither police nor
magistrate. They are as fearless as they are natural; for adversity and
hard work give them some compensation. But their dangers and temptations
are many. So I love to think of the lads who have stood the test and
have not yielded. I love to think of the gladness of the widow’s heart
and her pride in the growing manliness of her boy–“So like his father.”

I was visiting in the heart of Alsatia, and sat beside the bed of a
dying youth whose twenty-first birthday had not arrived–which never did
arrive. It was but a poor room, not over-clean. From the next room came
the sound of a sewing-machine driven furiously, for a widow by its aid
was seeking the salvation of herself and children. She was the landlady,
and “let off” the upper part of the house. The dying youth was not her
son; he belonged to the people upstairs. But the people upstairs were
not of much account, for they spent their time largely away from home,
and had scant care for their dying son; so the widow had brought his
pallet-bed into the little room on the ground-floor wherein I sat, “that
I might have an eye on him.” There must have been some sterling
qualities in the woman, though she was not much to look upon, was poorly
clad, and wore a coarse apron over the front of her dress. Her hands
were marked with toil and discoloured by leather, for she machined the
uppers of women’s and children’s boots, and the smell of the leather was
upon her; but she had a big heart, and though every time “she had an eye
on him” meant ceasing her work and prolonging her labour, she could not
keep away from him for long periods. But, my! how she did make that
machine fly when she got back to it! Blessings on her motherly heart!
There was no furniture in the room saving the little box and the chair I
occupied. The ceiling was frightfully discoloured, and the walls had
not been cleaned for many a day. But a number of oil-paintings without
frames were tacked on the walls, and these attracted my attention. Some
were very crude, and others seemed to me to be good, so I examined them.
They bore no name, but evidently they had been done by the same hand.
Each picture bore a date, and by comparing them I could mark the
progress of the artist. As I stood looking at them, forgetful of the
dying youth below me, I said, half to myself: “I wonder who painted
these.” An unexpected and weak reply came from the bed: “The landlady’s
son.” My interest was increased. “How old is he?” “About twenty.” “What
does he do?” “He works at a boot factory”; adding painfully: “He went
back to work after having his dinner just before you came in.” “Why,” I
said, after again examining the dates on the pictures, “he has been
painting pictures for six years.” “Yes. He goes to a school of art now
after he has done his work.” The youth began to cough, so I raised him
up a little; but the landlady had heard him, and almost forestalled me.
This gave me the opportunity I wanted, for when the youth was easier, I
said to her: “You have an artist son, I see,” pointing to the pictures.
“Yes,” she said; “his father did a bit.” “How long has he been dead?”
“Over seven years. I was left with four of them. My eldest is the
painter.” “What was your husband?” “A shoemaker.” “How long have you
lived here?” “Ever since I was married; I have kept the house on since
his death.” “Any other of your children paint?” “The youngest boy does
a bit, but he is only thirteen.” “Have you any framed pictures?” “No; we
cannot afford frames, but we shall, after a time, when he gets more
money and the other boy goes out to work.” “You are very good to this
poor youth.” “Well, I’m a mother. I must be good to him. I wish that I
could do more for him.” I never saw the consumptive lad again, for he
died from hæmorrhage the next day.

Some years afterwards I thought of the widow and her artist son, and
being in the neighbourhood, I called at the house. She was still there,
still making the machine fly. I inquired after her painter son. “Oh, he
is married, and has two children; he lives just opposite.” “What is he
doing now?” “He has some machines, and works at home; his wife is a
machinist too. They have three girls working for them.” “I will step
across and see him.” “But you won’t find him in: he goes out painting
every day when it is fine.” “Where has he gone to-day?” “Somewhere up
the river.” “How can he do machining if he goes out painting every day?”
“He begins to work at five o’clock and goes on till nine o’clock, then
cleans himself and goes off; he works again at night for four or five
hours. His wife and the girls work in the daytime. His wife is a rare
help to him; they are doing all right.” “I suppose he has some framed
pictures now?” “Yes, lots of them; but you come in and look at the room
the poor lad died in.” I went in, and truly there had been a
transformation. The ceiling was spotless, the walls were nicely
coloured, the room was simply but nicely furnished, and there were some
unframed pictures on the wall, but not those I had previously seen. “My
youngest son has this room now; those pictures are his.”

“What does he work at?” “Boots.” “Does he go to a school of art?” “Every
night it is open.” I bade the worthy woman good-day, telling her how I
admired the pluck, perseverance, and talent of her boys, also adding
that I felt sure that she had a great deal to do with it and their
success. “Well,” she said, “I have done my best for them, but they have
been good lads.” Done her best for them, and a splendid best it was! Who
else could have done so much for them? Not all the rich patrons the
world could furnish combined could have done one-half for them that the
brave, kindly, simple boot-machining mother had done for them. She was
better than a hero; she was a true mother. She did her best!

But her sons were heroes indeed; they were made of the right material.
Birth had done something for them, although their parents were poor, and
one departed early, leaving them to the mother, themselves, the slums,
and the world. When I can see growing youths, surrounded by sordid
misery and rampant vice, working on in poverty, withstanding every
temptation to self-indulgence, framing no pictures till they can pay for
them, whose artistic souls do not lead them to despise honest labour,
whose poetic temperaments do not lead them to idleness and debt, when
they are not ashamed of their boot-machining mother, I recognize them as
heroes, and I don’t care a rap whether they become great artists or not.
They are men, and brave men, too. I can imagine someone saying: “He
ought not to have married; he should have studied in Paris. Probably the
world has lost a great artist.” Perhaps it has, but it kept the man, and
we have not too many of that stamp. Perhaps, after all, he did the right
thing, for he got a good helpmate, and one who helped him to paint.

Genius is not so rare in the slums as superior people suppose, for one
of our great artists, but lately dead, whose work all civilized
countries delight to honour, played in a gutter of the near
neighbourhood where the widow machinist lived, and climbed a lamp-post
that he might get a furtive look into a school of art; and he, too,
married a poor woman.

A “FOSTER-MOTHER.”

And what wonderful women many of our London girls are! I often think of
them as I have seen them in our slums, sometimes a little bit untidy and
not over-clean; but what splendid qualities they have!

They know their way about, nor are they afraid of work. Time and again I
have seen them struggling under the weight of babies almost as big as
themselves. I have watched them hand those babies to other girls whilst
they had their game of hop-scotch; and when those babies have showed any
sign of discontent, I have seen the deputy-mother take the child again
into her arms, and press it to her breast, and soothe it with all the
naturalness of a real mother.

And when the mothers of those girls die, and a family of young children
is left behind, what then? Why, then they become real deputy-mothers,
and splendidly rise to their position.

Brave little women! How my heart has gone out to them as I have seen
them trying to discharge their onerous duties! I have seen a few years
roll slowly by, and watched the deputy-mother arrive at budding
womanhood, and then I have seen disaster again overtake her in the death
of her father, leaving her in sole charge.

Such was the case with a poor girl that I knew well, though there was
nothing of the slum-girl about Hettie Vizer. Born in the slums, she was
a natural lady, refined and delicate, with bright dark eyes. She was a
lily, but, alas! a lily reared under the shade of the deadly upas-tree.
When Hettie was fifteen her mother, after a lingering illness, died of
consumption, and Hettie was left to “mother” five younger than herself.
Bravely she did it, for she became a real mother to the children, and a
companion to her father.

In Hoxton the houses are but small and the rooms but tiny; the air
cannot be considered invigorating; so Hettie stood no chance from the
first, and at a very early age she knew that the fell destroyer,
Consumption, had marked her for his prey.

Weak, and suffering undauntedly, she went on with her task until her
father’s dead body lay in their little home, and then she became both
father and mother to the family. Who can tell the story of her brave
life? The six children kept together; several of them went out to work,
and brought week by week their slender earnings to swell the meagre
exchequer. Who can tell the anxiety that came upon Hettie in the
expenditure of that money, while consumption increased its hold upon
her?

Thank God the Home Workers’ Aid Association was able, in some degree, to
cheer and sustain her. Several times she went to the home by the sea,
where the breath of God gave her some little renewal of life.

But the sorrowful day was only deferred; it could not be prevented. At
length she took to her bed, and household duties claimed her no more. A
few days before her death I sat by her bedside, and I found that the
King of Terrors had no terror for her. She was calm and fearless. To her
brothers and sisters she talked about her approaching end, and made some
suggestions for her funeral, and then, almost within sound of the
Christmas bells, only twenty-one years of age, she passed “that bourne
whence no traveller returns,” and her heroic soul entered into its
well-earned rest. And the five are left alone. Nay, not alone, for
surely she will be with them still, and that to bless them. If not, her
memory will be sanctified to them, and the sorrows and struggles they
have endured together will not be without their compensations. “From
every tear that sorrowing mortals shed o’er such young graves, some good
is born, some gentler nature comes, and the destroyer’s path becomes a
way of life to heaven.”

It was my privilege to know her, and in my gallery of heroes she has a
foremost place. Strong men may do and dare and die. Firemen, colliers,
lifeboatmen, may risk their lives to save others; martyrs may face the
flames, and prophets may undergo persecutions. Their deeds live, and
their stories thrill us. But Hettie Vizer stands on a higher plane
still: a slum-girl, but a lady; a foster-mother, with a mother’s love; a
child enduring poverty, hard work, bereavements, and burning
consumption. But, rising triumphantly over them all, she listened to the
bells of God as they rang her into that place where sorrows and sighing
are no more.

And now her younger sister has succeeded her, for the home is still kept
together, and every week their little budget is considered, as it was
“when Hettie was alive.”

I have elsewhere spoken of the patient courage shown by weak and elderly
women, but I must again refer to it, for in my judgment there is no
sphere of life wherein greater courage is exhibited. For it must be
borne in mind that they are not sustained by hope. It may be said that
there is a good deal of fatalism connected with their courage and
endurance, and doubtless this is true; but no one can deny their
courage, endurance, and magnificent self-reliance. I have in my mind as
I write some hundreds of women engaged in London home industries whose
lives and struggles are known to me and who compel my veneration, so
when courage is spoken of I like to think of them; for though the
circumstances under which they live and the wrong they suffer bring a
terrible indictment against us, no one can, no one shall, deny their
possession of great courage, poor, weak, and elderly though they be.

Ay, it takes some courage to face day after day their life. I do not
think that I am short of pluck, but I am quite certain that I should
want to lie down and die were I submitted to lives such as theirs. Men
with animal courage could not endure it, and I freely grant that even
patient women ought not to endure it: perhaps, for the sake of future
generations, it might be best for them to die rather than endure it.

But when I see them and know their circumstances, see their persistent
endurance and their indomitable perseverance, I marvel! And in spite of
the oppression they suffer I know that these women are exhibiting
qualities that the world sadly needs, and are showing a type of heroism
for which the world is bound to be ultimately the better. Poor brave old
women! how I respect you! I venerate you! for the only hope that touches
your heart is the hope that you may keep out of the workhouse, and be
buried without parochial aid. Poor brave old women! I never enter one of
your rooms without at once realizing your brave struggle for existence.
I never see you sitting at your everlasting machines without realizing
your endless toil, and I never see your Industrial Life Assurance
premium-book lying ready for the collector without realizing that the
two pennies that are ready also are sorely needed for your food. Poor
brave old souls! how many times when your tea-canister has been quite
empty, and 4.30 in the afternoon has come, and the collector has not
yet called, have you been tempted to spend those pennies and provide
yourself with a cup of tea? How many times have you picked up the
pennies? how many times have you put them down again? for your horror of
a parish funeral was too strong even for your love for a cup of tea!
Brave old women! is there a stronger, more tragical, temptation than
yours? I know of none. Esau sold his birthright for a tasty morsel, well
fed as he was; but you will not surrender your “death right”–nay, not
for a cup of tea, for you are made of better stuff than Esau. So you go
without your tea; but your burial money is not imperilled. Yes, it takes
some moral courage to resist such a temptation; but there is no glamour
about it: the world knows not of it; nevertheless, it is an act of stern
self-repression, an act of true heroism. Shame upon us that it should be
required! glory to us that it is forthcoming! What a life of heroism a
poor woman has lived for that ten, twenty, or forty years, who, in spite
of semi-starvation, has resisted the temptation to spend her burial
money! Those few pounds so hardly saved are as fragrant as the box of
costly ointment poured upon the Master’s feet, and convey the same
sentiment, too, for their brave old souls respect their poor old bodies,
and against their day of burial they do it! It may be a mean ambition,
but of that I am by no means sure; still, it is better than none, for
poor, desolate, and Godforsaken must the old woman be who does not
cherish it. Poorer still will the old women be, and more desolate their
hearts, when this one ambition disappears, and they are heedless,
apathetic, and unconcerned as to how and where their poor old bodies
are buried.

So the heroism of the slums is of the passive more than the active kind,
of the “to be and to suffer” sort rather than of the “to do and dare.”
And it must needs be so, for opportunities of developing and exhibiting
the courage that needs promptitude, dash, and daring have very largely
been denied the people who live in our narrow streets. But their whole
lives, circumstances, and environments have been such that patience
under suffering, fortitude in poverty, and perseverance to the end could
not fail to be developed. In these qualities, despite all their vices
and coarseness, poor people, and especially poor women, set a splendid
example to the more favoured portions of the community.