Alarming Condition of the West-End
by H. S. S.
[FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONENT.]
It has long been generally understood that most of the inhabitants of the West-end are permanently out of work, but the extreme gravity of their condition has never yet been sufficiently realised. A house-to-house visitation which I have recently made (by a series of “morning calls”) in the worst quarters of Belgravia, reveals an alarming state of affairs, which may at any time result in a dangerous social crisis. I shall be speaking within the mark when I say that fully ninety per cent of these unhappy people are at the present moment quite resourceless and wholly dependent on the public charity, under a gigantic system of outdoor relief. The whole manner of their life is deplorable in the extreme. From the cradle to the grave they are nothing better than pensioners and paupers; for having no work, and consequently no property which can correctly be called their own, they are fed, clothed, housed, educated, and altogether provided for, at the expense of the community, and thus reduced to a state of pitiable dependence and imbecility. Time hangs so heavy on their hands, that they are fain to get through the day by rising as late as possible in the morning, loafing in the park in the afternoon, and devoting their evenings to dinner-parties or dances. Some few of the more conscientious among them make a pathetic pretence of having something to do, by carrying on a sort of make-believe occupation which they call “business”, but which is in reality merely a more systematic method of receiving and registering the doles of that public charity by which they are supported. Perhaps the worse sign of all is the moral degradation of the majority, and natural result of their dependence and self-respect of the recipients, that they seem positively unaware of their beggarly and undignified position, and are devoid of any sort of gratitude towards the working-classes to whose generosity they owe all that they nominally possess. Before proceeding further, I will give two typical instances.
(1.) No. —, Sybarite Square, S.W. On visiting this dwelling, I found the inmate, Mr. —, reclining in a state of extreme prostration in an easy chair. By means of some questions put in a very guarded form, for fearing of wounding his susceptibilities, I gathered that he was completely out of work, and that his family was compelled to choose between starvation and the disgrace of receiving several thousand pounds annually from the national purse. In desperation they chose the latter alternative. Mr. — had been educated at the country’s expense at Eton and Oxford, but at the end of his academic career had been quite unable to find any employment for which he was qualified. It had, oddly enough, been the same with the father before him, and there seemed no hope that it would be otherwise with his sons.
(2.) No. —, Plantagenet Mansions, S.W. Of all the dwelling-places I visited this impressed me most mournfully. It formed one of a line of immense houses, each precisely like its neighbours, and all of them bald and hideous in the extreme. One could scarcely believe that life could be supported under such depressing conditions; and yet it is so; for on entering, I found the tenant, a widow, Lady —, sitting with her two daughters in the chief apartment, and conversing with some show of cheerfulness with some visitors, neighbours presumably, who had looked in to offer assistance and consolation as lay in their power. The house was furnished with a tawdry magnificence which was truly heartrending. I could scarcely bear to think of this poor soul thus “residing” (for that, I believe, is the usual term among the inhabitants of these dismal quarters) in a dwelling quite devoid of any real comforts, where even the furniture was wholly provided at the cost of the parish. I learnt afterwards from a trustworthy source that this poor lady’s story was at once a sad and a typical one. Utter resourcelessness had compelled her to marry at an early age. Her husband, himself invariably out of work, could afford but little comfort to the partner of his blank and aimless life; he was at last carried off by a severe attack of ennui, aggravated by a system of heavy eating and drinking, and left her a widow, with two daughters, and no hope or prospect in life but to continue the usual round of eating, sleeping, idling, and gossiping on the treadmill of “Society.”
From these instances it may be seen what is the state of affairs in the West-end districts. What then is to be done? Some will doubtless advise that the wise teaching of the illustrious Malthus should be more rigidly enforced, and that these unhappy pensioners should be instructed not to marry and bring children into the world until they see some prospect of supporting themselves in honest livelihood. Others will enlarge on the various advantages of wholesale emigration, and will draw attention to the fact that recent telegrams from Noodleland and Goose Island report that there is now a good opening for State paupers of this class. Others, again, will recommend thrifty, frugality, and temperance, as the means whereby these poor people may best reinstate themselves as self-supporting citizens. I feel sure, however, that the initiative must come, not from the paupers themselves, who have now fallen too low to extricate themselves without assistance, but from the working-classes of this country, who, if truth be told, are primarily to blame for having lavished indiscriminate charity on these unworthy applicants. Working-men, will you not bestir yourselves, in order to save your fallen fellow-countrymen? Do not continue to demoralise them by thus supplying them too generously with all the needs of life, for it is only by cutting off their supplies that you will ever bring them to a right and proper sense of their desperate position. This may seem a hard saying; but, remember, that you are now dealing with impoverished classes who have been hardened into shamelessness by long periods of idleness and mendicity. Hitherto, you have been too generous and tender-hearted; henceforth you must apply the Poor Laws more vigorously, and sternly refuse to give any further outdoor relief. This is the first and only sure step towards reform.
Everything, however, cannot be effected immediately; and in the meantime the lot of these unhappy creatures may be undoubtedly alleviated by the consolations of Religion. It might be well to establish a mission in the very centre of Belgravia, and to appoint some earnest man to superintend so pious an undertaking. Such a pastor would probably have no difficulty in assuring the members of his flock, by a timely and comforting reference to the after-life of Dives in the Parable, that the extreme dullness and monotonous satiety which they find so hard to endure in this world are likely to be replaced hereafter by a more emotional and less frigid state of existence.
Published: The Commonweal, 12 June 1886