Can We Save the Children?

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, October 9, 1888)

When we introduced "The Bitter Cry of Outcast London" to the attention of the great public, five years ago, we suggested one thought which is never absent from our minds when confronted with the realities of life in the "Sunken Sixth" of London.

The grim Florentine might have added to the horror of his vision of hell by a sojourn in a London slum. For in his Inferno the damned at least did not breed. With us they do. Every year sees an addition to the long roll of the newborn list. Born in the fetid atmosphere of a crowded cellar, suckled on gin, and cradled in the gutter, they never have a chance.

The passage reverts to our memory as we read Dr. Barnardo's appeal in the Times for the establishment of casual wards for children at the East-end. The fate of the children is the climax of horror. The existence of hundreds and of thousands of children with no other parentage than women like Elizabeth Stride and Annie Chapman and Mary Ann Nichols, with no other home than the dossing-ken, and no other playground than the gutter, that is the abiding and appalling tragedy of the situation, beside which all other horrors pale and disappear.

Dr. Barnardo, in his letter to the Times, describing the lives of the children brought up in the common lodging-houses, says quite truly that it is impossible to describe the state in which myriads of children live in these human sewers, breathing from their birth an atmosphere fatal to all goodness. They are saturated from birth in vice and uncleanness, and Dr. Barnardo in his zeal would forbid all lodging-houses by law to shelter any children under sixteen. Therein he goes too far. Any of us may some day be driven by poverty to seek the shelter of a dossing ken; and, even in our direst extremity, we would not care to be separated from our children. But a great deal may be done short of legislative prohibition. The first thing obviously is to establish lodging-houses for boys and girls, if, as Dr. Barnardo says, they can be made "self-supporting, or nearly so." We confess that we have doubts as to the possibility of making these places self-supporting. Still, Dr. Barnardo is an authority second to none, and we hope he will explain how it can be done. If he can set out a practical plan by which all the homeless lads and lasses of London can be lodged decently in places where they would not be contaminated by the constant converse of prostitutes and thieves, we do not think that he will lack for funds - supposing that the first cost of the building is raised by a public subscription, and the coppers of the children pay the working expenses. One poor woman, who may have been Elizabeth Stride herself, for she was in the circle that listened to Dr. Barnardo's exposition of the advantages of his scheme, is said to have exclaimed: "We're all up to no good, and no one cares what becomes of us. Perhaps some of us will be killed next! If anybody had helped the likes of us long ago, we would never have come to this." "The likes of us" are indeed "up to no good," although the Bishop of Bedford does well to appeal for a laundry to help them earn a living, if they wish to do so decently. But it is the children who offer the best field for philanthropic activity, and in default of anything better Dr. Barnardo's scheme might well be tried.

Nothing will do any great good that is based on the principle of taking children from their parents. If a man and a woman are not fit to be trusted with the upbringing of their offspring, they ought not to be allowed to have any children. Mr. Arnold White pleads for "the sterilization of the unfit," but the plain English of it is that the human pair who bring a child into the world for whom they cannot provide food, clothes, and lodging are criminals, and should be punished as such. The immense responsibility of parentage can only be borne by parents. It cannot be thrust upon the State. That has been tried often enough with no other result than that of organized infanticide. The existing foundling hospitals - in Russia, for instance - are simply massacre-shops for nearly one-half their luckless inmates. It sounds excellent and philanthropic and altogether admirable that the State should undertake the mothering and fathering of those children whose own parents are unfit or incapable, but it would really be kinder to legalize infanticide sans phrase. It is true, as some ghastly figures in the following article seem to prove, that baby killing has ceased to be regarded as murder in London, but we have not yet arrived at the point where the State can deliberately decree the extinction of the life even of the rickettiest infant born in an East-end dossing ken. Under the reign of science and evolution, and the decay of the old theological bolts and bars against homicide, we may come to that, but as yet the old religion, with its conception of the soul, is still sufficiently potent to forbid the direct road followed by the ancients. Nowadays infanticide to be respectable must be circuitous. The question to-day, however, is not how to kill but how to save alive. And the public, for a moment conscience-stricken at the spectacle of how the poor live, will gladly co-operate with Dr. Barnardo if he can utilize his vast experience so as to help in establishing a self-supporting decent dossing ken for the homeless children of London.

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I founded this website in 2001 to assist me in my own research on W.T. Stead, little knowing then that it would become the largest online resource on Stead's life and career. Today this site is used by students, scholars and institutions around the world and has significantly contributed to the Study of W.T. Stead and the evils which he campaigned against.

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Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) MPhil