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An essay by James Runciman

The Hopeless Poor

Title:     The Hopeless Poor
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

By fits and starts the public wake up and own with much clamour that there is a great deal of poverty in our midst. While each new fit lasts the enthusiasm of good people is quite impressive in its intensity; all the old hackneyed signatures appear by scores in the newspapers, and "Pro Bono Publico," "Audi Alteram Partem," "X.Y.Z.," "Paterfamilias," "An Inquirer," have their theories quite pat and ready. Picturesque writers pile horror on horror, and strive, with the delightful emulation of their class, to outdo each other; far-fetched accounts of oppression, robbery, injustice, are framed, and the more drastic reformers invariably conclude that "Somebody" must be hanged. We never find out which "Somebody" we should suspend from the dismal tree; but none the less the virtuous reformers go on claiming victims for the sacrifice, while, as each discoverer solemnly proclaims his bloodthirsty remedy, he looks round for applause, and seems to say, "Did you ever hear of stern and audacious statesmanship like mine? Was there ever such a practical man?"

The farce is supremely funny in essentials, and yet I cannot laugh at it, for I know that the drolleries are played out amid sombre surroundings that should make the heart quake. While the hysterical newspaper people are venting abuse and coining theories, there are quiet workers in thousands who go on in uncomplaining steadfastness striving to remove a deadly shame from our civilisation, and smiling softly at the furious cries of folk who know so little and vociferate so much. After each whirlwind of sympathy has reached its full strength, there is generally a strong disposition among the sentimentalists to do something. No mere words for the genuine sentimentalist; he packs his sentimental self into a cab, he engages the services of a policeman, and he plunges into the nasty deeps of the City's misery. He treats each court and alley as a department of a menagerie, and he gazes with mild interest on the animals that he views. To the sentimentalist they are only animals; and he is kind to them as he would be to an ailing dog at home. If the sentimentalist's womenfolk go with him, the tour is made still more pleasing. The ladies shudder with terror as they trail their dainty skirts up noisome stairs; but their genteel cackle never ceases. "And you earn six shillings per week? How very surprising! And the landlord takes four shillings for your one room? How very mean! And you have--let me see--four from six leaves two--yes--you have two shillings a week to keep you and your three children? How charmingly shocking!" The honest poor go out to work; the wastrels stay at home and invent tales of woe; then, when the dusk falls on the foul court and all the sentimentalists have gone home to dinner, the woe-stricken tellers of harrowing tales creep out to the grimy little public-house at the top of the row; they spend the gifts of the sentimentalist; and, when the landlord draws out his brimming tills at midnight, he blesses the kind people who help to earn a snug income for him. I have seen forty-eight drunken people come out of a tavern between half-past eleven and half-past twelve in one night during the time when sentiment ran mad; there never were such roaring times for lazy and dissolute scoundrels; and nearly all the money given by the sentimentalists was spent in sowing crops of liver complaint or _delirium tremens_, and in filling the workhouses and the police-cells. Then the fit of charity died out; the clergyman and the "sisters" went on as usual in their sacredly secret fashion until a new outburst came. It seems strange to talk of Charity "raging"--it reminds us of Mr. Mantalini's savage lamb--but I can use no other word but "rage" to express these frantic gushes of affection for the poor. During one October month I carefully preserved and collated all the suggestions which were so liberally put forth in various London and provincial newspapers; and I observed that something like four hundred of these suggestions resolve themselves into a very few definite classes. The most sensible of these follow the lines laid down by Charles Dickens, and the writers say, "If you do not want the poor to behave like hogs, why do you house them like hogs? Clear away the rookeries; buy up the sites; pay reasonable compensation to those now interested in the miserable buildings, and then erect decent dwellings."

Now I do not want to confuse my readers by taking first a bead-roll of proposals, and then a bead-roll of arguments for and against, so I shall deal with each reformer's idea in the order of its importance. Before beginning, I must say that I differ from all the purveyors of the cheaper sort of sentiment; I differ from many ladies and gentlemen who talk about abstractions; and I differ most of all from the feather-brained persons who set up as authorities after they have paid flying visits in cabs to ugly neighbourhoods. When a specialist like Miss Octavia Hill speaks, we hear her with respect; but Miss Hill is not a sentimentalist; she is a keen, cool woman who has put her emotions aside, and who has gone to work in the dark regions in a kind of Napoleonic fashion. No fine phrases for her--nothing but fact, fact, fact. Miss Hill feels quite as keenly as the gushing persons; but she has regulated her feelings according to the environment in which her energies had to be exercised, and she has done more good than all the poetic creatures that ever raked up "cases" or made pretty phrases. I leave Miss Hill out of my reckoning, and I deal with the others. My conclusions may seem hard, and even cruel, but they are based on what I believe to be the best kindness, and they are supported by a somewhat varied experience. I shall waive the charge of cruelty in advance, and proceed to plain downright business.

You want to clear away rookeries and erect decent dwellings in their place? Good and beautiful! I sympathise with the intention, and I wish that it could be carried into effect instantly. Unhappily reforms of that sort cannot by any means be arranged on the instant, and certainly they cannot be arranged so as to suit the case of the Hopeless Poor. Shall I tell you, dear sentimentalist, that the Hopeless brigade would not accept your kindness if they could? I shall stagger many people when I say that the Hopeless division like the free abominable life of the rookery, and that any kind of restraint would only send them swarming off to some other centre from which they would have to be dislodged by degrees according to the means and the time of the authorities. Hard, is it not? But it is true. Certain kinds of cultured men like the life which they call "Bohemian." The Hopeless class like their peculiar Bohemianism, and they like it with all the gusto and content of their cultured brethren. Suppose you uproot a circle of rookeries. The inhabitants are scattered here and there, and they proceed to gain their living by means which may or may not be lawful. The decent law-abiding citizens who are turned out of house and home during the progress of reform suffer most. They are not inclined to become predatory animals; and, although they may have been used to live according to a very low human standard, they cannot all at once begin to live merely up to the standard of pigs. No writer dare tell in our English tongue the consequences of evicting the denizens of a genuine rookery for the purpose of substituting improvements; and I know only one French writer who would be bold enough to furnish cogent details to any civilised community. But, for argument's sake, let me suppose that your "rooks" are transferred from their nests to your model dwellings. I shall allow you to do all that philanthropy can dictate; I shall grant you the utmost powers that a government can bestow; and I shall give six months for your experiment. What will be found at the end of that time? Alas, your fine model dwellings will be in worse condition than the wigwam that the Apache and his squaw inhabit! Let a colony of "rooks" take possession of a sound, well-fitted building, and it will be found that not even the most stringent daily visitation will prevent utter wreck from being wrought. The pipes needed for all sanitary purposes will be cut and sold; the handles of doors and the brass-work of taps will be cut away; every scrap of wood-work available for fire-wood will be stolen sooner or later, and the people will relapse steadily into a state of filth and recklessness to be paralleled only among Australian and North American aborigines. Which of the sentimentalists has ever travelled to America with a few hundreds of Russian and Polish Jews, Saxon peasants, and Irish peasants from the West? That is the only experience capable of giving an idea of what happens when a fairly-fitted house is handed over to the tender mercies of a selection from the British "residuum." I shall be accused of talking the language of despair. I have never done that. I should like to see the time come when the poor may no more dwell in hovels like swine, and when a poverty-stricken inhabitant of London may not be brought up with ideas and habits coarser than those of a pig; I merely say that shrieking, impetuous sentimentalists go to work in the wrong way. They are the kind of people who would provide pigeon-cotes and dog-collars for the use of ferrets. I grant that the condition of many London streets is appalling; but make a house-to-house visitation, and see how the desolation is caused. Wanton, brutish destructiveness has been at work everywhere. The cistern which should supply a building cannot be fed because the spring, the hinge, and the last few yards of pipe have been chopped away and carried to a marine-store dealer; the landings and the floors are strewn with dirt which a smart, cleanly countrywoman would have cleared away without ten minutes' trouble. The very windows are robbed; and the whole set of inhabitants rests in contented, unspeakable squalor. No--something more is required than delicate, silky-handed reform; something more is required than ready-made blocks of neat dwellings; and something more is required than sighing sentimentalism, which looks at miserable effects without scrutinising causes. Let the sentimentalist mark this. If you transplant a colony of "rooks" into good quarters, you will have another rookery on your hands; if you remove a drove of brutes into reasonable human dwelling-places, you will soon have a set of homes fit for brutes and for brutes alone. Bricks and mortar and whitewash will not change the nature of human vermin; phrases about beauty and duty and loveliness will not affect the maker of slums, any more than perfumes or pretty colours would affect the rats that squirm under the foundations of the city. Does the sentimentalist imagine that the brick-and-mortar structures about which he wails were always centres of festering ugliness? If he has that fancy, let him take a glance at some of the quaint old houses of Southwark. They were clean and beautiful in their day, but the healthy human plant can no longer flourish in them, and the weed creeps in, the crawling parasite befouls their walls, and the structures which were lovely when Chaucer's pilgrims started from the "Tabard" are abominable now. If English folk of gentle and cleanly breeding had lived on in those ancient places, they would have been wholesome and sound like many another house erected in days gone by; but the weed gradually took root, and now the ugliest dens in London are found in the places where knights and trim clerks and gracious dames once lived. In the face of all these things, how strangely unwise it is to fancy that ever the Forlorn Army can be saved by bricks and mortar!

Education? Ah, there comes a pinch--and a very severe pinch it is! About five or six years since some of the most important thoroughfares in London, Liverpool, and many great towns have been rendered totally impassable by the savage proceedings of gangs of young roughs. Certain districts in Liverpool could not be traversed after dark, and the reason was simply this--any man or woman of decent appearance was liable to be first of all surrounded by a carefully-picked company of blackguards; then came the clever trip-up from behind; then the victim was left to be robbed; and then the authorities wrung their hands and said that it was a pity, and that everything should be done. The Liverpool youths went a little too far, and one peculiarly obnoxious set of rascals were sent to penal servitude, while the leader of a gang of murderers went to the gallows. But in London we have such sights every night as never were matched in the most turbulent Italian cities at times when the hot Southern blood was up; our great English capital can match Venice, Rome, Palermo, Turin, or Milan in the matter of stabbing; and, for mere wanton cruelty and thievishness, I imagine that Hackney Road or Gray's Inn Road may equal any thoroughfare of Francois Villon's Paris. These turbulent London mobs that make night hideous are made up of youths who have tasted the full blessings of our educational system; they were mostly mere infants when the great measure was passed which was to regenerate all things, and yet the London of Swift's time was not much worse than the Southwark or Hackney of our own day. I never for an instant dispute the general advance which our modern society has made, and I dislike the gruesome rubbish talked of the good old times; but I must nevertheless point out that "fancy" building and education are not the main factors which have aided in making us better and more seemly. The brutal rough remains, and the gangs of scamps who infest London in various spots are quite as bad as the beings whom Hogarth drew. They have all been forced into the Government schools; all of them have learned to read and write, and not one was suffered to leave school until he had reached the age of fourteen years or passed a moderately high standard according to the Code. Still, we have this monstrous army of the Hopeless Poor, and they are usually massed with the Hopeful Poor--the poor who attend the People's Palaces, and institutes, and so forth. Alas, the Hopeless Poor are not to be dismissed with a light phrase--they are not to be dealt with by mere pretty words! They are creatures who remain poor and villainous because they choose to be poor and villainous; so pity and nice theories will not cure them. The best of us yearn toward the good poor folk, and we find a healthful joy in aiding them; but we have a set of very different feelings towards the Evil Brigade.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Hopeless Poor