Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub

'SANITARY AID.

The condition of the homes of the London poor has, during the last few months, been brought before the public in a very forcible manner. In Parliament and out of it men of all ranks and all parties have united in proclaiming the need for immediate action. And that there is just cause for all this feverish agitation few, who have any radical knowledge of the subject, will be disposed to deny. The chief danger lies at present in another direction. It consists mainly in a well-grounded fear either that the sudden wave of enthusiasm should be allowed to expend itself in mere unfruitful clamour, or else that, in the excitement of roused emotion, some utopian rate-supported or State-supported' panacea will be hastily adopted wbich, failing entirely of its object, will either create a new evil without destroying the old one, or else cause the whole complicated problem to be again abandoned in despair, while no really large statesmanlike effort be made to fairly grapple with it.

At such a time as this, therefore, it is perhaps more than ever valuable to consider how the quiet practical labour of individual effort may be utilised towards the solution of this great question. To find some rational outlet for the recent popular emotion, by turning it into channels of useful, though possibly to some minds somewhat prosaic, action, were surely a task which might with wisdom be undertaken.

For no great reform can ever be the work of a moment, and the reform of our slums least of all. In it, more perhaps than in any reform of the present day, personal individual service must go hand in hand with legislation in order to make legislation truly operative. It is not enough to rebuild, you must reclaim ; it is not enough to destroy, you must educate. The babits of the people require improving as well as their homes. A large number, at least of this generation, bave grown callous from constant contact with the evils which surround them. They are heart-sick and weary from struggling against that fine-drawn network of circumstance and daily environment, wbich is so far harder a battle to fght than any single crushing disaster.

Perhaps one of the most forcible lessons taught by sanitary aid visiting is the tremendous odds at which respectable working people fight in order to secure the decency of their homes.

And precisely because the difficulties which surround them are those which we of the educated classes have greatly the power to lessen, we dare not rest satisfied with mere discussion ; we must go amongst them and act.

Such action has become both simple and feasible, through the agency of the volunteer sanitary aid committees which are being quietly organised all over the poorer parts of London, and urgently call for help from all who have the welfare of the people at heart.

For experience shows more than ever distinctly that it is not so much increased legislation that is required as more power to carry it into effect. In certain points, to which we shall refer presently, the law is manifestly deficient; but if the present legislation were honestly carried out, it would extirpate many of the worst evils.

With whom then does the fault lie? It is easy to lay the blame on any one body and hold them responsible for all ; but the truth is, that the fault must be shared by many, and that even the "upper classes' cannot come off without reproach. For they at least have been content hitherto to let things take their course, troubling themselves but little about the social chasm which separates east and west in our great metropolis. Thus it is a favourite popular cry to lay all the blame on the vestries. If the vestries have the enormous power which is attributed to them, why has it been left so long in the hands of those whose interest it was to use it for their own purposes ? Why have the upper classes so sedulously shirked work which opened such a splendid field for beneficent effort ? Or, again, the apathy of the medical officers of health is blamed ; yet they have been laden with a mass of work to which no single man could possibly do justice. They have been so underpaid that, in order to earn a livelihood, they have, in a number of cases, been forced to add private practice to their already overtaxed time and strength. And, finally, their position is such that their reward is in inverse proportion to their energy, and their most able work is often set aside by the very authorities on whom alone they could count for getting it carried out.

And, finally, it is said, why do not the poorer classes themselves combine to get the law carried out for their own benefit?

For three excellent reasons. Firstly, because they do not know what the law is; secondly, because, even when known, they do not dare appeal to it; thirdly, because any appeal to the law generally brings in its train evils which to them are far greater than those which the law can cure; for let it be distinctly realised, once for all, that the condition of the homes is primarily a woman's question, and that point alone will explain much of the seeming apathy. The men, the bread-winners, go off very early to work, and generally return late. They are but little in the house, and feel far less of the discomfort of an unsanitary bome than the women. After a hard day's work they are more than ever disinclined, even if it were possible at such late hours, to hunt out the sanitary authorities and lodge a formal complaint. To write a letter is to most of them a work of time and difficulty, and it is only in extreme cases that they will face the certain displeasure of their landlords for only a doubtful chance of getting a sanitary evil redressed by the authorities.

And if it be thus with the men, the case holds doubly good with the jaded and auxious women, who are completely at the mercy of a tyrannical and often unscrupulous landlady, who can embitter their lives in a hundred petty ways, and vent her spite by turning them out homeless or putting in the brokers the instant that want of work or misfortune puts them behindhand with the rent.

If houses were plentiful and rents moderate, the landlady's power would be less, and the tenants might hope to be independent of her, as they could always find another room, But to a woman with a family, a notice to quit is a very serious thing. The mere expense and annoyance of a move are considerable ; but the hardship of being obliged to move away from her own or her husband's work, together with the extreme difficulty of getting re-housed when she has more than two children, is often a very great one.

The first question a landlady asks is, 'Have you any children?' If the answer is, 'Yes, four,' or five, or whatever the case may be, the invariable answer is, « Oh, we don't care for children; you had better go and look somewhere else. It's cruel,' said a respectable mother in despair; "the poor children must go somewhere. They seem to forget that they was ever children theirselves.'

Thus the landlady is an ever-present and most potent tyrant, and under her influence the people cringe and are silent. One of the principal reasons for the success of the sanitary aid committees is the fact that, in dealing with a complaint, no names are mentioned, and thus the tenants are gradually emboldened to state their wrongs to the sanitary aid visitors, and give utterance to what else would have remained unknown. Occasionally one bolder than the rest, or slightly more educated, will address an anonymous letter to the secretary of a Sanitary Aid Committee-letters often amusing enough, though with a strong dash of pathos, as the subjoined will show:

6 Wiss.

'In Reply to yours of the 19th, alow me to inform you that the case that I have to complain of is situated at No. 10 St. where there is an old man lives in A little back kitchen about say 12 x 10, he is about 60 years of age and gets is liveing by buying Rabbit skins which I have known him to keep hanging up in his room A week and 10 days, for the purpose of drying before he sells them thereby causing a verry Offensive smell and altogether his room it is very beastly. In addition to

1

the above the door of the room opens into the back yard where there is the dust hole about 4 ft. from the door. I have seen the so-called dust to lay there scattered about the yard two weeks together. There is A fishmonger keeps a front shop, and he makes a practice of throwing his Awful and putrid fish into the so-called dust hole and covering it over with refuse thereby causing A stench awful to contemplate! I should say that the old man will wash his room about twice a year and, that with two or three pails of water and a Hard broom, so I think this is a case well worth your looking into. Trusting to your secresy respecting your informant, I remain

Yours obediently

A. B.'

Needless to say the case was promptly dealt with by the Sanitary Aid, to the visible improvement of the house. But out of 160 cases brought before this particular Committee, only some five or six have been by letter, all the rest were verbal. When once the tenants have found that they are secure of secresy,' they are only too ready to describe what they have suffered from the state of the houses. A few typical cases will perhaps best give an idea of the wretched conditions in which many of these people live, and the rents they have to pay for the fever dens which they occupy. In one house, a six-roomed tenement, let off to six distinct families, the woman in the top floor back' was paying 3s. 6d. a week for an unfurnished room, in which the flooring was in such holes, that two people had gone through the floor into the ceiling of the room below in the course of a fortnight. One woman who was expecting her confinement had left, because the landlord had refused to repair the boards, and she was afraid of some dangerous accident. The next tenant came into the room as it was, and contented herself with covering the holes in the floor with small patches of carpet, as danger marks. Occasionally these were forgotten, and the following colloquy was heard one day outside the door while a visitor was sitting in the parlour within.

“Hi! Mr. Smith!'
“Well, what is it?' from tenant inside.

'I say, have we gone through your ceiling again? My missus has just put her foot through that hole by mistake. I hope we ain't damaged you?'

Mr. Smith looks up at his ceiling. "No, we're all right this time, he remarks serenely. The visitor looked up at the ceiling, which appeared intact, with some surprise. Mr. Smith explains that the spot alluded to is only paper, which covers over the hole in the ceiling, made through the floor of the room above, and which he had pasted up, to make things look a little more decent-like. You see,' he says apologetically, the landlady won't do anything, though she has been asked often enough : if we complain she says we may go, and it's hard to find another place about here.' In the same house the whole drinking-water supply for seven families was contained in an old decayed black wooden water-butt with no cover. At the bottom was lying an old preserved-meat tin, some oyster and winkle-shells, and

[ocr errors]

various minor objects thrown in by the children. The surface of the water was covered by a film of yellow scum and blacks. One tenant remarked, “I don't like to drink it unless it's boiled, for it do smell bad sometimes.

At the back of the house is a small court, in which, still further to exclude light and air, is built up a wretched two-roomed cottage occupied by a family of eight people. The man who lived in it kept twelve gentlemen's dogs in kennels in the same court, besides a number of chickens, ducks, pigeons, and rabbits, while a donkey, belonging to "a lady up the street who sells greens,' shared a little shed, close to the dogs. The smell arising from this menagerie, as well as the noise of the dogs at night, still further aggravated the woes of the poor tenants. But worst of all was the sickening odour from the half-putrid boiled meat which was cooked for these dogs to eat. As regards water-closet accommodation for these seven families, it was practically nil. The state of the court may be better imagined than described.

Thanks to the efforts of the Sanitary Aid, a grand transformation has since been effected. The flooring has been new laid, the staircase repaired, the whole interior of the house re-plastered, and coloured buff with a red dado. The court has been cleared of nearly all its four-footed and feathered inmates, and the wooden water-butt has been done away; a large new zinc cistern with a copper ball-tap has been put up for the drinking-water; the closet has been repaired and a second cistern placed in it. The windows have been re-glazed and fresh sashes put to them-in fact, the whole house looks a different place, and the tenants are transported with delight. It may be as well to add that none of the rents have been raised in consequence of repairs, nor have the tenants suffered at all.

The occupier of the worst room stated that she had moved there from a neighbouring street where she, her husband, and three children (two sons of 13 and 15, and a girl of 10 inhabited a basement kitchen under a shop. In this house the drains were so bad that all these five people were removed to the hospital at once, suffering from typhoid fever, and in the parlour above four more were taken away. Thus, in one house there were nine cases of typhoid, which were all attributed to the state of the drains, and to the unsanitary condition of the tenement. The poor woman's husband was given over by three doctors, but ultimately recovered. When they got well they came to their present abode, which, at the time she entered it, was really little better than her last one, save that it was not below the level of the street, as the former room was.

Another case, almost worse than this, was that of a house in a street near by, where the whole water supply for twelve families (those living in that house and in the next) was contained in a small brick cistern placed directly over the closet in such a position as to form a perfect trap for the introduction of sewer-gas into the water.

« PredošláPokračovať »