Problems of a Great City

White, Arnold


CHAPTER VI: Overcrowding

CHAPTER VI: Overcrowding


THE magnetism of large cities is characterised as much by the intensity as by the volume of evil generated within the field of influence. The effects on the health and character of the working classes, resulting from overcrowding, are numerous; it is a plague-spot of furious vitality: so prolific of disease to body and mind, that the stream of philanthropy has exhausted effort in wetting a sore when it should cleanse a cancer, and in dealing with effects when fully developed, instead of drowning them in the centre at their birth. Overcrowding is a central evilround which the others are grouped. The unit of the problem of overcrowding is the one-room system. The result of the one-room


system is the one-bed system, and the effect of the one-bed system is somewhat to mitigate the advantages of the system of national education, on the subject of which the English people are so cock-a-whoop. The single-room system forges incest, illegitimacy, juvenile prostitution, drunkenness, dirt, idleness, disease, and a death-rate higher than that of . The rate of mortality in a certain quarter of was stated by to have reached in the enormous rate of 70'1 per thousand. The average death-rate for England is 19'6 per thousand. Much suffering is caused to little children in overcrowded districts, which does not appear in the death-rate. Their happiness is impaired and their health injured by breathing air tainted by disease. In St. Luke's, ophthalmia, locally known as the blight, is prevalent. Scrofula and congenital diseases are also prevalent among the young children. Typhus is intimately connected with overcrowding; but infectious and even fatal disease is not so great an evil as the general reduction of stamina all round resulting from the generic poison of overcrowded centres.


On the authority of (), the evils of overcrowding are a " public scandal," and are becoming, in certain localities, " more serious than they ever were." Much legislation is in existence, designed to meet these evils, but the atrocious want of system, the character of some of those to whom the administration of local government is entrusted, added to the idle game indulged in by the House of Commons, known as " permissive legislation," combine to increase the output of evils of which all are aware.

The existing legislation on the subject is as follows:-

In carried the and the

In the was carried by .

In , , and Mr. obtained legislation, after two years' debates, conversations, cross-examinations, rejoinders, inquiries, and investigations, which dealt with the provision of " better dwellings for artisans and labourers."


In , , and the commonly known as " became law.

In - were appointed to consider the working of the Torrens' and Cross's Acts. The Reports of these Committees were followed by

Despite the wisdom and expert knowledge of which this clotted mass of legislation is the monument, the evils attacked by the Governments of the last thirty years " have not only continued, but have in some places increased in the most aggravated manner " (Report of Royal Commission). The will of Parliament has been exerted perfunctorily. and are indifferent to Stepney and . East London has hitherto never been articulate, and thus evils which would frenzy the nation were they to happen in or Cawnpore are accepted with languid remorse by the country at large. Gross neglect and corruption by members of the local Vestries and Boards of Guardians contribute largely to the state of affairs in


East London. The work, for example, of house drainage is imperfectly done-largely in consequence of there being little supervision on the part of the local authorities. Bad sanitary arrangements usual in the poor man's house are incredible to the comfortable classes. Ashpits and dustbins are few and far between. Refuse vegetable matter is thrown into open dustholes, and poisons in the process of decomposition the air of close courts. The neglect by the local authority of dustbins is the means of communicating scarlet fever to whole rows of houses. In the metropolis the law provides:-

" First, that the vestry or district board, as the case may be, must-(a) appoint and employ persons; or (b) contract with some company or persons for collecting and removing all dirt, ashes, rubbish, and filth in houses and places within their parish or district. The scavengers so employed or contracted with, or their servants, are to perform their duties on such days, and at such hours, and in such manner as the vestry or district board from time to time appoint. The penalty for neglect of duty on the part of the scavenger is a sum not exceeding £5 for every offence (18 and 19 Vict., c. 120, S. 125). An occupier or person who refuses or does not permit any soil, dirt, ashes, or filth to be taken away by the scavengers, or who obstructs the scavengers in the performance of their

duty, is liable for every offence to a penalty not exceeding £5 (18 and 19 Vict., c. 120, S. 126).

"Second, as to urban sanitary districts, i.e., boroughs, Local Government districts, and Improvement Act districts-Every urban sanitary authority may, and when required by order of the Local Government Board, must, undertake or contract for-(a) the removal of house refuse from premises; (b) the cleansing of ashpits, either for the whole or any part of the district. If any person removes, or obstructs the authority or contractor in removing, any of the matters above mentioned which are authorized to be removed by the authority, he is liable for the offence to a penalty not exceeding £5 (38 and 39 Vict., c. 55, s.

42). If the authority, who have themselves undertaken or contracted for the removal of house refuse from premises, or the cleansing of ashpits, fail, without reasonable excuse, after notice in writing, from the occupier of any house within their district, requiring them to remove any house refuse, or to cleanse any ashpit belonging to the house, or used by the occupiers of it, to cause the same to be removed or cleansed, as the case may be, within seven days, the authority will be liable to pay to the occupier of the house a penalty not exceeding 5s. for every day during which the default continues after the expiration of the period of seven days (38 and 39 Vict., c. 55, s. 43). But where the sanitary authority do not themselves undertake or contract for-(a) the removal of house refuse; (b) the cleansing of ashpits belonging to any premises; they may make bye-laws imposing the duty of cleansing or removal, at such intervals as they think fit, upon the occupier of the premises.

" The sanitary authority may also make bye-laws for the prevention of nuisances arising from filth, dust, ashes, and rubbish (38 and 39 Vict., c. 55, s. 44). The authority may provide in proper and convenient situations receptacles for the temporary deposit and collection of dust, ashes, and rubbish; and they may also provide fit buildings and places for the deposit of the matters collected by them (38 and 39 Vict., c. 55, s. 45).

" Although this is not the place for the consideration of matters connected with rural sanitary districts, it may be mentioned that the provisions in force are the same as in urban sanitary districts, except those set out in the last paragraph above."-(

Report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes

, p. 9.)

The water supply in the poorer portions of London is inadequate, and the source of misery, and unhealthiness and misery. Personal cleanliness, the mark of a gentle mind, is impossible where the supply of water is uncertain, and where, from the absence of storage accommodation, it has to be kept in tubs, and often in the foul atmosphere of sleeping-rooms. Even when there is a supply in the houses, they are often supplied from one and the same cistern, for the purpose of flushing the sanitary arrangements and quenching the thirst. The cistern is often uncovered, and close to the closet pan and the dust heap.


Much power is confided to the local authorities in regard to the provision of closet accommodation. In Clerkenwell, cases occur of one closet for sixteen houses. Indigent Italians engaged in the ice-cream and barrel-organ trade have peculiarly offensive habits. Remissness of the local authorities, and the nebulous state of the law on the question as to the difference between a servant and a lodger, combine to produce a condition of things which had better be left to the imagination.

Offensive trades carried on in insanitary dwellings give rise to peculiarly energetic, capable, and efficient germs of disease. Rags saturated with filth, picked in unventilated rooms, are the vehicles of virulent fevers and contagious disorders. Some trades, such as matchbox making, requiring the use of paste, especially in warm weather, are especially disgusting. Rabbit-pulling is, perhaps, the most pernicious, as the air is charged with fluff; and when a stray sunbeam shoots athwart the murky room, the atmosphere appears solid enough to be sliced with a bread-knife. Fish are cured and smoked in


bedrooms inhabited by human beings, and the costermonger restores his haddocks, watercresses, and fruit-which have been deposited beneath his bed for the night-by anointing them with the water which has been described by as "the pure diamond of God."

The absence of a general system of mortuaries involves the retention in the living-room of the family of a corpse until the funeral takes place. In the interval between the death and interment the ordinary habits of life are maintained. Eating, drinking, and sleeping in the company of the dead is gruesome to the mind; and when the body remains unburied for a lengthened period-as is usual among the poor--the health of the living is endangered, if not impaired.

As mortuaries are rare, and, under the present form of local government, are unlikely to increase, the only remedy for this evil is the enactment of a measure providing for the burial of corpses within fortyeight hours of death. The customary delay which is allowed to elapse in England between


death and burial, especially among the poorer classes, has no parallel in other civilized countries. The custom is attended by no advantage, and it is difficult to discover any reasons why this period should not at all events be materially curtailed.

Overcrowding is partly due to the structural defects of houses built for other purposes, but inhabited from cellar to garret by the poorest folk. Houses built for the well-to-do merchant of George the Second's time have passed through many vicissitudes before arriving at the tenement period of their existence, when they become the object of well-meaning, but ineffectual legislation. Nominal owners have parted with effectual control, and the inevitable consequence is the disregard of all the intermediate profitmongers for the condition in which tenement property is kept. No radical improvement in the housing of the poor can take place until the principle is accepted by the Legislature that no original owner can by sub-letting alienate responsibility where he continues to receive profit. The necessary misery of many as essential to the profit of


one is conformable neither to the Sermon on the Mount nor to the enactments of just law. Nothing short of the expropriation of defaulting owners and the suppression of the present form of local government will meet the difficulty; and, in any case, the indignanation of the public at the perpetuation of remediable evils for the sake of gain, when men's lives are the counters, must be aroused against the evil-doers.

Among the well-to-do an eighth to a tenth of the income is spent in rent. Among the poor, according to , , eighty-eight per cent. of the dwellers in certain poor quarters of London spend more than one-fifth of their income in rent; forty-six per cent. pay from one-fourth to one-half; forty-two per cent. pay from onefourth to one-fifth; and only twelve per cent. pay less than one-fifth of their weekly wages in rent. Four shillings is the average rent of one room, and six shillings of two. The disproportion between rent and wages is increasing in intensity in certain parts of London. Congestion proceeds apace, while


wages are not rising; casual labourers and many of the poorer artizans are compelled to live near their work. Workmen's trains are luxuries for a higher rank in society. Dock labourers must be in readiness for a " call," which may arise at any moment. White men in the heart of London are fighting any winter morning, like Esquimaux dogs over a piece of blubber, for the work that only a few can get. Even skilled artizans, such as Clerkenwell watchmakers, not owning all the expensive tools required by their delicate trade, must borrow once or twice a day, and must return the apparatus with punctuality. This prevents their living at a distance from their work. Girls engaged in the artificial flower trade must be in attendance whether there be work for them or not; for, like the Dock hands, if they be not within hail, they lose the chance of casual employment.

The pressure caused by the immigration of foreign Jews, especially into , , and , is another cause of overcrowding. So serious is this question of the immigration of the


indigent foreigner, that some consideration of the subject may not be out of place.

In the , British Columbia, and in , the indigent foreigner of the Mongolian variety has received the earnest attention of the Legislatures concerned. While it is not urged that the Chinaman and the indigent German Jew are in all respects similar, there is sufficient identity in the two problems to render an examination into the merits of the interesting and important.

The case for the exclusion of Chinese from the English Colonies is as follows:-

1. That they arrive in the country faster than any other kind of immigrant.

2. That they are superior in number to our own race.

3. That they are not disposed to be governed by our laws.

4. That they are dissimilar in habits and occupation to our own people.

5. That they evade the payment of taxes justly due to the Government.

6. That they are governed by pestilential habits.


7. That they are useless in cases of emergency.

8. That they habitually desecrate graveyards by the removal of bodies therefrom.

9. That the laws governing the whites are found to be inapplicable to Chinese.

10. That they are inclined to habits subversive of the comfort and well-being of the community.

Certain of the charges in this indictment are unjust if sought to be applied to the indigent foreigner, who contributes so largely to the overcrowding problem of our great cities. Some of the counts are only too true; and so bitterly is the justice of these charges felt by those suffering from the immigration, it would not be surprising to witness a jüdenhetze in the heart of London. Temperate in his habits, and with a low standard of comfort, the poor foreigner evades all taxation in England, while he presses heavily on the poorer English in the struggle for existence. While the , with all her boasted freedom, relentlessly rejects and returns on our hands all indigent English or Irish emigrants who knock at the door of the Immigrant Depôt


at , the home of cant as well as of the free, admits, without a protest, all the poor souls driven from Silesian soil by the imperious necessities of Bismarckian policy. is a great country, and is an eminent man; but why England should remain content to act as rubbish-heap to the great country and the eminent man, when neither America nor our own Colonies will take a single pauper from us, passes all understanding. This remonstrance is no political indictment, and appeals to neither party nor passion. England will cease to be England if our rulers do not show that they love the English more than the frugal, unlovable foreigner. Cant and hypocrisy may talk of freedom and England being a sanctuary for the desolate and oppressed. Freedom to starve and to go to the streets for Englishmen and English girls, is to be set against the vicarious hospitality quidnuncs would continue to extend to indigent foreigners, and thus constrain their unwilling companions and rivals of English blood, by the riotous excesses of political economy, to seek a sanctuary in starvation, and repose in death. So


long as the evil was restricted, the hospitality and the freedom of England were topics well calculated to regale the national appetite for sentiment and ideas. Now that the evil is growing apace, and becomes apparent even to those who are not crowded out of existence by the competition of untaxed strangers within our gates, the question arises as to what is the best method of grappling with the difficulty.

Public opinion in England is not sufficiently robust to reject, at the port of disembarkation, paupers of foreign blood; and, owing to local circumstances, any inquiry instituted on landing into the means of the immigrant would easily be baffled or evaded. The only remedy apparent to me is the imposition of a poll-tax, which should not be less in amount than eight pounds. It could be made recoverable from employers in the same manner as income tax is collected from public companies on behalf of their employes. If it be objected that and other States will retaliate by the imposition of similar taxation, the obvious reply is that settlement in our own Colonies will receive a stimulus, ar national development


will thus be concentrated within the circumference of the empire.

The magnetic attraction exerted by the mass of a great city on the impressionable minds of agricultural labourers who are driven from the soil is in itself one overwhelming cause of the overcrowding problem. Nevertheless, artificial encouragement is given to the increase of population by the advertisements of contractors for provincial labour when labour in excess is present on the spot. The extension of the was carried out by bringing up people from the provinces when men in plenty were obtainable on the spot. Contractors do not regard city labourers with favour. Industry and sobriety are found more usually in the rural than in the urban population. , a clergyman with great knowledge of the subject, considers that, if it could be done, some attempt should be made to counteract those proceedings of advertising to bring labour to an over-stocked market. It is probable that any such attempt, to be practicable, must take the form of improving the moral and physical status of the poorer


inhabitants of a great city, rather than that of legislative interference with the execution of contract works.

Immigration with all its evils, and from whatever cause, is not so serious a factor in the overcrowding problem as demolitions and the consequent displacement of population. Demolitions may be divided into five classes.

1. Clearances undertaken by owners for the improvement of their property when no provision is made for the poor tenants.

2. Clearances effected by the local authority under statutory powers for the erection of artizans' dwellings in the place of the buildings demolished.

3. Demolitions for the widening and improvement of public streets.

4. Demolitions undertaken in consequence of the erection of public buildings.

5. Demolitions carried out by Railway Companies for the enlargement and construction of their termini, lines, and stations.

The first of these classes presents, in an extreme form, the logical issue of the rights of property; one where an intellectual assent to the exercise of such rights is demanded


from people who are incapable of according their assent. As a wild blackbird cannot resist black currants growing in a garden, so men, evicted for another's gain, with no covert in which to lay their head, cannot resist the conclusion that the laws of life are superior to the laws of property; and that political economy is subordinate to the higher laws of humanity and justice. Those whose need is greatest suffer most acutely.

The second class of demolition is undertaken from humane motives, but is the cause of hardship from the manner in which the arrangements are carried out. Rents are raised in adjacent districts, and it happens sometimes that the poor are turned out of fairly well-ordered rooms, and are compelled to make their new abode in quarters several degrees lower in quality, and not lower in rental.

Next come the street improvements. Perhaps this is the worst of all the classes, for the poor, often ejected only by the sound of the pick and crowbar at their very threshold, overcrowd the surrounding neighbourhood, send up rents, and often " sink into a miserable


mode of life, after being accustomed to decency and cleanliness."

Sites for the erection of School Boards are necessarily chosen in the most crowded parts of the town, and consequently occasion distress similar in character to that arising from public improvements.

The inability of the poor to protect themselves is rarely more conspicuous than when receiving notices to remove from their dwellings by the agents of a . They do not appreciate the fact until the roof is about their ears. As in the British Government appoint a for the benefit of those natives who contemplate a sojourn on the plantations of or the , so in London an is needed for the guardianship of those inhabitants of the human warrens, who share with the rabbit the characteristics of timidity, suspicion, and fecundity.

At the present time are appointed by vestries and district boards, and are subordinate to the worthies who adorn these distinguished assemblies. There


are not many fo these Inspectors, and they have so much to do their existence cannot be regarded as offering a serious contribution to the overcrowding proglem. In there is one Inspector to fifty-six thousand inhabitants. Eighty-six thousand inhabitants of divide between them a whole Inspector. , has one Inspector to every nine thousand population,but on this vestry- according to the Report of the Royal Commission -were "thirteen or fourteen persons who are intesrested in bad and doubtful property." Sanitary Inspectors whose office and pay are subject to the pleasure of such a body may be expected to be supine. basks in the sunshine of notoriety both from the state of the homes of the working classes, and from the remarkable characteristics of some members of the assembly administering its local affairs.

As an example fo the class of appointment made by the local authorities of some portions of London, the evidence of , , reveals some singular practices. It appears from this gentleman's.


evidence before the Royal Commission (Q. 17,679) that one of the sanitary inspectors of the parish acts also as secton, coronor's officer, messenger to the vestry, and that the training enjoyed by this versatile functionary to fit him for the charge of the lives and health of thousands of human beings was that "he was something in the Jewelley Trade" It is clear from such an instance as this that, pending changes in the government of London, the Local Government Board should be entrusted with a veto on the appointment of parochial sanitary officials.

The truth must be told, and it cannot be refuted. Vestrymen, voracious, incapable, devoid of public spirit, swarm like locusts on a field of young millet, fatten on the rate payers, taint the record of public life, check the resolves of human officials, and betray the interests they are elected to protect. Saturated with corruption, and incompetent, the present form of Local Government in London is doomed. Counterfeit representation leads to illusory forms of protecting the poor and needy-forms which are but phantoms flitting to and fro, powerless to right


great wrongs, or to carry out the permanent, solid, and straightforward purposes of an honest and hearty desire to attenuate evil and advance the good.

Forty-five acres of land are available in London on the removal of the prisons for the erection of artizans' dwellings.

The Public Prosecutor should, as the only functionary competent to do so, proceed against owners or holders of insanitary property on behalf of those who have suffered injury or loss to property or health. To invest an impoverished apple-woman with the power of bringing a civil action against the or his middlemen and sub-lessees is one of those legislative quips of which the presents another conspicuous example.

The recommendations of the main body of the Royal Commissioners partake of a temporising character. It is necessary to clear away root and branch the present vestry system. No legislation designed to impress on the local authority a sense of their duty in relation to the vigorous enforcement of sanitary laws can be efficacious when


no sense of duty finds a place in the consciences and the hearts of many of those who are typical representatives of the present system. A Municipality for London conceived on Imperial lines, with a system of representation sufficiently wide in scope to evoke the patriotic services of worthy citizens, is of the first necessity if measures are seriously undertaken with the object of bettering the condition of the poor. Water supply, sanitary accommodation, responsibility of owners, abatement of nuisances, are details of great moment, but subordinate in importance to the greater question of providing administrative machinery adequate to grapple with the tremendous problem with which it has to deal, and manned by men enjoying the confidence of the public.