London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
Description of the Asylum for the Houseless.
THE Asylum for the Houseless Poor of London is opened only when the thermometer reaches freezing-point, and offers nothing but dry bread and warm shelter to such as avail themselves of its charity.
To this place swarm, as the bitter winter"s night comes on, some half- penniless and homeless wanderers. The poverty-stricken from every quarter of the globe are found within its wards; from the haggard American seaman to the lank Polish refugee, the pale German "out-wanderer," the tearful black seacook, the shivering Lascar crossing-sweeper, the helpless Chinese beggar, and the halftorpid Italian organ-boy. It is, indeed, a ragged congress of nations—a convocation of squalor and misery—of destitution, degradation, and suffering, from all the corners of the earth.
Nearly every shade and grade of misery, misfortune, vice, and even guilt, are to be found in the place; for characters are not demanded previous to admission, want being the sole qualification required of the applicants. The Asylum for the Houseless is at once the beggar"s hotel, the tramp"s town-house, the outcast"s haven of refuge—the last dwelling, indeed, on the road to ruin.
It is impossible to mistake the Asylum if you go there at dark, just as the lamp in the wire cage over the entrance-door is being lighted. This is the hour for opening; and ranged along the kerb is a kind of ragged regiment, drawn up deep, and stretching far up and down the narrow lane, until the crowd is like a hedge to the roadway. Nowhere in the world can a similar sight be witnessed.
It is a terrible thing, indeed, to look down upon that squalid crowd from of the upper windows of the institution. There they stand shivering in the snow, with their thin, cobwebby garments hanging in tatters about them. Many are without shirts; with their bare skin showing through the rents and gaps of their clothes, like the hide of a dog with the mange. Some have their greasy coats and trousers tied round their wrists and ankles with string, to prevent the piercing wind from blowing up them. A few are without shoes; and these keep foot only to the ground, while the bare flesh that has had to tramp through the snow is blue and livid-looking as half-cooked meat.
It is a sullenly silent crowd, without any of the riot and rude frolic which generally ensue upon any gathering in the London streets; for the only sounds heard are the squealing of the beggar infants, or the wrangling of the vagrant boys for the front ranks, together with a continued succession of hoarse coughs, that seem to answer each other like the bleating of a flock of sheep.
To each person is given half-a-pound of the best bread on coming in at night, and a like quantity on going out in the morning; and children, even if they be at the breast, have the same, which goes to swell the mother"s allowance. A clerk enters in a thick ledger the name, age, trade, and place of birth of the applicants, as well as where they slept the night before.
As the eye glances down the column of the register, indicating where each applicant has passed the previous night, it is startled to find how often the clerk has had to write down, "in the streets;" so that "ditto," "ditto," continually repeated under the same head, sounded as an ideal chorus of terrible want in the mind"s ear.
The sleeping--wards at the Asylum are utterly unlike all preconceived notions of a dormitory. There is not a bedstead to be seen, nor is even so much as a sheet or blanket visible. The ward itself is a long, bare, whitewashed apartment, with square post-like pillars supporting the flat-beamed roof, and reminding the visitor of a large unoccupied store-room—such as are occasionally seen in the neighbourhood of and the Docks. Along the floor are ranged what appear at sight to be endless rows of large empty orange chests, packed closely side by side, so that the boards are divided off into some shallow tanpit-like compartments. These are the berths, or, to speak technically, the "bunks" of the institution. In each of them is a black mattress, made of some shiny waterproof material, like tarpauling stuffed with straw. At the head of every bunk, hanging against the wall, is a leather—a big "basil" covering—that looks more like a wine-cooper"s apron than a counterpane. These "basils" are used as coverlids, not only because they are strong and durable, but for a more cogent reason—they do not retain vermin.
Around the fierce stove, in the centre of the ward, there is generally gathered a group of the houseless wanderers, the crimson rays tinting the cluster of haggard faces with a bright lurid light that colours the skin as red as wine. and all are stretching forth their hands, as if to let the delicious heat soak into their half-numbed limbs. They seem positively greedy of the warmth, drawing up their sleeves and trousers so that their naked legs and arms may present a larger surface to the fire.
Not a laugh nor sound is heard, but the men stand still, munching their bread, their teeth champing like horses in a manger. poor wretch, at the time of my visit, had been allowed to sit on a form inside the railings round the stove, for he had the ague; and there he crouched, with his legs near as a roasting-joint to the burning
|coals, as if he were trying to thaw his very marrow.|
Then how fearful it is to hear the continued coughing of the wretched inmates! It seems to pass round the room from to another, now sharp and hoarse as a bark, then deep and hollow as a lowing, or—with the old—feeble and trembling as a bleat.
In an hour after the opening the men have quitted the warm fire and crept after another to their berths, where they lie rolled round in their leathers—the rows of tightlybound figures, brown and stiff as mummies, suggesting the idea of some large catacomb.
The stillness is broken only by the snoring of the sounder sleepers and the coughing of the more restless.
It is a marvellously pathetic scene. Here is a herd of the most wretched and friendless people in the world, lying down close to the earth as sheep; here are some centuries of outcasts, whose days are an unvarying round of suffering, enjoying the only moments when they are free from pain and care—life being to them but long painful operation as it were, and sleep the chloroform which, for the time being, renders them insensible.
The sight sets the mind speculating on the beggars" and the outcasts" dreams. The ship"s company, starving at the North Pole, dreamt, every man of them, each night, of feasting; and are those who compose this miserable, frozen-out beggar crew, now regaling themselves, in their sleep, with visions of imaginary banquets?—are they smacking their mental lips over ideal beef and pudding? Is that poor wretch yonder, whose rheumatic limbs rack him each step he takes—is tripping over green fields with an elastic and joyous bound, that in his waking moments he can never know again? Do that man"s restlessness and heavy moaning come from nightmare terrors of policemen and treadwheels?—and which among those runaway boys is fancying that he is back home again, with his mother and sisters weeping on his neck?
The next moment the thoughts shift, and the heart is overcome with a sense of the vast heap of social refuse—the mere human streetsweepings—the great living mixen—that is destined, as soon as the spring returns, to be strewn far and near over the land, and serve as manure to the future crime-crops of the country.
Then come the self-congratulations and the self-questionings! and as a man, sound in health and limb, walking through a hospital, thanks God that he has been spared the bodily ailments, the mere sight of which sickens him, so in this refuge for the starving and the homeless, the instinct of the well-to-do visitor is to breathe a thanksgiving (like the Pharisee in the parable) that "he is not as of these."
But the vain conceit has scarcely risen to the tongue before the better nature whispers in the mind"s ear, "By what special virtue of your own are you different from them? How comes it that you are well clothed and well fed, whilst so many go naked and hungry?" And if you in your arrogance, ignoring all the accidents that have helped to build up your wordly prosperity, assert that you have been the "architect of your own fortune," who, let us ask, gave you the genius or energy for the work?
Then get down from your moral stilts, and confess it honestly to yourself, that you are what you are by that inscrutable grace which decreed your birthplace to be a mansion or a cottage rather than a "padding-ken," or which granted you brains and strength, instead of sending you into the world, like many of these, a cripple or an idiot.
It is hard for smug-faced respectability to acknowledge these dirt-caked, erring wretches as brothers, and yet, if from those to whom little is given little is expected, surely, after the atonement of their long suffering, they will make as good angels as the best of us.