Problems of a Great City

White, Arnold


CHAPTER X: The Poor Man's Budget

CHAPTER X: The Poor Man's Budget


THE typical income of a poor man is that of an average labourer, such as a scaffolder or builder's labourer. A scaffolder possesses a modicum of skill, and earns therefore somewhat higher wages than the hodman or bricklayer's man. Full time is fifty-two hours and a half in a week, which at sixpence an hour amounts to £ 1 6s. 3d. Assuming that the man is in the prime of life-say thirty years of age-he will probably be married and have a family of three children. Wages are paid at noon on Saturday, and he will probably there and then drink, or treat his mates to an average of, two pots of beer at fourpence


a pot; and he will spend on beer and tobacco together not less than five shillings a week on the average of one week with another.

Although it is not the custom to give credit for drink at public-houses, it is not unusual to do so at beer-houses, where a request to " stick it up " is seldom refused if the customer be known, and is in work. Some publicans refuse to give credit for drink, as they are unable to sue for tippling debts. They, therefore, evade the statute by lending the drinker the equivalent of his debt in cash, and then, in the event of his being unable or unwilling to pay, they sue him for money lent. The practice of gambling for drink with dominoes is unusual in what are known as "stand-up" houses, or houses where spirits are sold; but dominoes are often kept in beerhouses for the purpose of enabling the landlord's customers to determine by resort to a game of chance the person upon whom the burden of payment should fall. The usual drink is colloquially known as "four-ale," so called because it is fourpence a pot, and this, divided with " four-half," which is a mixture of porter, or black beer, and " four-ale,"


obtains the suffrages of most of the drinkers. If this beer be drunk off the premises and is sent for in the customer's jug the price will be reduced to threepence-halfpenny a pot, or sometimes to threepence. In the opinion of some intelligent working men, beershopkeepers are bound to doctor their beer in order to pay rates, rent, and taxes; the beer thus treated is said to be " faked," and on Saturday and Sunday, more than on any other part of the week, the occult treatment of beer is in operation. The sales are larger on these two days than on any other two days in the week, especially in the lower houses, and it is alleged that many publicans, and most barmen, have their especial secrets for the treatment of the beverages received from the brewer. Beershop-keepers devote a regular portion of their time to the management of their cellars, and the analysis of beer sold on Saturday night, or after church time on Sunday, would be interesting. The labourers of the building trade who have often to relinquish work, especially in the spring, in consequence of rain, are attracted to those beershops where they can get credit;


and in the lower class of houses the beershopkeeper is generally a pot-boy or barman who has risen from the ranks, and is not seldom a cunning and selfish member of the community.

Although beer in its various forms is most constantly drunk, other beverages chiefly consumed are gin-as being the cheapest, and therefore more easily sophisticated-and rum and new whisky. A not unusual consumption of beer for an average labourer is halfa-pint at eleven a.m., one pint at one p.m., half-a-pint at three p.m., and a pint and a half after tea, that would come to four shillings and a penny a week, leaving elevenpence for tobacco, and no margin for getting drunk. Complaints are rife that some of the beer is terribly bad, it creates thirst, and even a small quantity involves a morning headache.

The price of gin is from fourpence-halfpenny to fivepence per quartern. Although it is usual for potmen of neighbouring beerhouses to visit bricklayers and labourers on small building jobs, drinking is not allowed on large jobs, which are therefore not so popular among a large class as those of more


restricted dimensions. The character of the liquor supplied varies with the character of the public-houses.

Taking, then, four shillings and a penny as the average weekly expenditure on drink by a labourer throughout the year, it appears that he spends in the course of a year £ 10 12s. 4d. As he pays twopence a pint for his beer it is evident that he loses by retail consumption. Taking the price of a nine-gallon cask of pure beer at ten shillings, if he were able to buy seventeen nine-gallon casks of beer instead of 1,274 pints he would have about £2 2s. 4d. in hand, which would be a valuable addition to the fund available for schooling, clothes, or food, without reducing the consumption of liquor he is accustomed to enjoy.

The tobacco smoked by the labourer is almost exclusively known as shag. Shag tobacco is generally bought over the bar of the public-house, at twopence the half-ounce or a penny the " screw." Assuming that the weight is accurately measured, which is by no means always the case, the price per pound avoirdupois of this shag tobacco would be five shillings and fourpence. A labourer


will smoke three ounces a week in the year of fifty-two weeks. This makes 156 ozs., which at fourpence an ounce is £2 12s.; if he were to buy his tobacco a pound at a time instead of in small quantities, apart from the loss by weight, which is often considerable, he would have a further sum of sixteen shillings available for the general purposes of a family, without reducing the quantity of tobacco in which he indulges. Most labourers have a pipe in their mouths whenever possible. As a class they smoke more than mechanics. Investigations I have made as to the proportion of smokers show that no fewer than from ninety to ninety-four per cent. of labourers, whether in or out of work, either smoke or chew.

The rent is a heavy item, and accommodation generally bad. The model dwellings, especially the Peabody Buildings, are not inhabited by labourers, and it is hardly too much to say that at present the accommodation for men of the lower wage-earning class has not been touched by the provision of model dwellings. If our scaffolder is an Irishman he will probably live in one room, for


which he pays not less than four shillings a week; and if he pays his rent regularly he is not only profitable to his " middleman " landlord, but is paying to the latter an insurance against the delinquencies of other tenants. Next to the matter of obtaining work the rent question is regarded as the most important by the labouring classes; there is no privation through which they will not pass rather than break up their home, and their efforts to pay their rent are often necessarily attended by a diminution in their supply of food needful for subsistence. Arrears of rent are more feared than any other form of debt, and it is not improbable that the class most benefited by the creation of Mansion House Funds are the tenement landlords of London. There is very little doubt that the hatred and execration with which landlords throughout the country are generally regarded by the uneducated portion of the proletariat is the result of contact with one form of landlord, who is too often a middle-man or sub-lessee without capital, and who is not seldom devoid of those qualities for which many of the great landowners of England and have obtained the


confidence and affection of their country tenants. Subjoined is a letter illustrative of this point:-

" DEAR SIR, "I hope you will pardon me for the liberty I take in writing to you. I had to get -- to write before, as I was not able to, sir. I take the liberty of asking you if you can assist me in my present trouble. I had the misfortune of doing a very little work since Christmas, which caused me to get back in my rent. Second, my misfortune, taken ill has still made it worse for me, making three months at three shillings per week I owe, sir. My landlord is bad; he has got five little houses down where I live. He told me on Monday he could get no rent; he cannot get enough out of them to pay the taxes, so he's going to turn them out and sell the houses; so he has told me that if I do not pay him some this week he will put my things into the street. Sir, if you will assist me this time I will not trouble you again. Sir, I have two loaves and 1s. 6d. in grocery from the parish for me, my wife, and five children


for a week. so you see, sir, we cannot afford to waste much of that; so if you will be so kind as to send me a little money to help me out of my present trouble I shall be thankful."

"From your humble servant,________

There is a curious preference on the part of most labourers for living in a room in a small house as compared with a large barrack-like building. It is for this reason that, while the competition for unlet rooms in small tenement houses is invariably keen, few, if any, of the model dwellings situated in the midst of a dense population are fully let; the restrictions as to cleanliness, the disposal of rubbish, the washing and drying of clothes, and the regulations as to sanitary arrangements are repugnant to the free-born Englishman or Irishman, or, rather to the ladies of his family; and they will prefer to pay more for a small room where they are let alone, than for apartments in a poor man's palace, where they are inspected and harassed by injunctions to a cleanly and an orderly life. There is always a charm in Alsatia; and those of .


the tenement landlords of London who make their pound of flesh the chief object in life are thoroughly aware of this fact, trade on it, and reap their reward. Of the £ 10 8s. paid as rent, therefore, I estimate that at least £ 1 0s. 9d. is paid over and above the amount necessary to replace capital, a sinking fund for depreciation, and interest of five per cent.; but it is difficult to say how the poor man's budget can be reduced on the expenditure side by this amount until the Legislature takes vigorous measures with regard to the alienation of responsibility to sub-lessees by superior landlords.

Butcher's meat is generally enjoyed on Sunday only, when it is either bought for cash at the cheap butcher's on Saturday night, or at small chandler's shops, which now supply bread, meat, and milk, as well as tea, bacon, sugar, oatmeal, butter, and flour. Minute quantities of food are sold at these chandlers' shops. Milk, for example, can be obtained at one farthing the half-quarter that is, the eighth of a pint. Fish is eaten on Friday, even by Protestants, but it is not considered nourishing, and there is no great


liking for it in any form, unless fried, and this: mostly among the lads and young men. In the evenings the fried fish shops are crowded by this latter class, who make a hearty meal on the odoriferous viands prepared in full view.

The dinner taken by our scaffoldman to his work will generally consist of bread and cheese with a rasher of bacon on most days, with perhaps some cold meat on Monday, the remains of Sunday's dinner. If the wife goes out during the week to earn a shilling or two by some cleaning or charing work, he will mend his fare with meat in the course of the week. The appetites of these out-of-door labourers are enormous, unless they are addicted to drink more heavily than the typical case of a man whose budget is being considered.

To maintain the family health, viz., two adults and three children, will cost not less than thirteen shillings a week, of which not less than one shilling is the tribute to defective methods of distribution.

The next item of importance is coals. These are obtained in small quantities;


often as little as 7lbs. avoirdupois being fetched at one time. The price of this coal is one penny for 7lbs., which amounts to £ 1 6s. 8d. a ton. The coal is generally inferior, some of it dust, and a good deal of slag or stone. About one quarter of a hundredweight will be used daily, and will cost a shilling to fifteenpence per week; he will thus spend about £3 0s. 8d. in fuel in the course of the year, including wood, candles, and matches; the former of these he often obtains as an acknowledged perquisite from the place where he is employed. Thirtyseven per cent. of this expenditure is due to imperfect distribution, as the coal for which he pays at the rate of £1 6s. 8d. per ton would not be worth, if delivered by the ton, more than fifteen or sixteen shillings, and this notwithstanding that our scaffoldman or some member of his family has to fetch his coal from the greengrocer's or chandler's shop.

Clothes form the next item, which, at least in the summer time, is less serious than the provision of boots. Children's clothing is bought in Leather Lane and Somers Town cheaply, by middle-men from factors, and resold


on Saturday night or Sunday morning in the open street or at small wardrobe shops at considerable profit. The price, however, of these clothes is but small, and the expenditure one week with another does not exceed fifteenpence a week for the family. With boots, however, the matter is different. Boots are a necessity to the bread-winner, and there is considerable shame felt if the children are obliged to attend school shoeless, or with their foot-coverings in an unusually dilapidated condition. It is not unusual to contract with a shoemaker for a contract supply of boot leather for the family all the year round, including repairs, at a sum not exceeding a shilling or fourteenpence a week.

The budget expenditure for the week now amounts to £1 5s. 8d., leaving sevenpence for newspapers, indulgences, treats, holidays, presents, subscriptions, club, music-hall, pew-rent, postage, books, charity, hospitality, repair of furniture, and other incidentals of family life. It will thus be seen that intermission of work, or the confinement of the house-mother, or illness of the bread-winner will plunge the family in the full blast of the north wind. A


resort to the pawnshop is, in such an event, a matter of necessity, and here the loans of the poor man are only effected on payment of interest which would be regarded as usurious in another class of society. A movement has been made lately for the purpose of introducing into England the system of the Mont du Piété, and at all events it can hardly be denied that " needs revision.

The direct or indirect taxes paid by the scaffolder to the State are very small, except on spirits, beer, tobacco, and tea. He is more lightly taxed than his Continental brother. But of his income of £68 5s., assuming he is in work all the year round, he pays £7 9s. 1d. in virtue of his inability to purchase many household requisites and his own luxuries at the same rate as is possible to those possessing capital.

From this state of things it is evident that retail quantities of stores at wholesale prices is the principal method by which society can help the poor working man. Co-operation in the ordinary sense of the term involves proprietary interest and permanent residence.


Neither of these conditions is present in the case of the scaffolder. No spare cash is available for investment, and he is nomadic in his habits by the exigencies of his work. Twenty per cent. of the London electorate changed their residences between , and ; the majority of these changes being the poorer class of the voters.

It is therefore essential, if the blessings of co-operation (which have proved so signally useful to the residential artizans and millhands of the Midland counties) are to be extended to the poor urban population, that the organization and administration must be undertaken and the funds provided by others. Some, at all events, of the poor shop-keepers who would be disestablished by the change could be engaged as salesmen. For ten thousand pounds the retail meat trade of could be revolutionized in favour of the indigent customer. Under any circumstances it would be well, were funds available for such a purpose, to proceed strictly on commercial lines, and to divorce the measures taken from the taint of ineffective philanthropy.