Outcast London – Where to Begin?

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Outcast London – Where to Begin?

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, October 23, 1883)

Letters continue to pour in upon us with reference to “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London.” Often as the question of the housing of the poor has been discussed, and again put aside, the interest in it remains unabated, and even responds with increasing fervour to each new call. For past discussions, though not wholly resultless, have yet produced very inadequate results; and the evil is a growing one.

Not only have existing slums remained almost untouched by past efforts, but our great cities, especially London, are yearly adding new layers of brick and mortar to their already excessive circumference. Many of these, though not slums now, are bound, seeing the reckless fashion in which every inch of ground is being built over, and the kind of buildings there erected, to become slums hereafter. It is well, therefore, in face of so vast an evil, that the feeling excited by the matter should be as widespread and as intense as it is. Of its intensity there can be no doubt whatever. The letters we have received about it, wild or sober, practical or unpractical, all bear the mark of real sincerity, of a genuine longing to be up and doing in the face of this tremendous evil, a longing which is ready to undergo toil and to make sacrifices. The problem is where to begin.

One thing at least is obvious. The question which has for a hundred times been raised, agitated, and again forgotten, must not be allowed once more to sink even into temporary oblivion. We cannot afford that. It may be said that it is of no use to dwell incessantly upon harrowing details with which everybody is by this time only too familiar. The mere reiteration of the painful facts is not wholly useless. The mass of well-meaning indolent people should be made continually to see – not merely to realize in the abstract, but to have before them as a vivid haunting picture – the misery which goes on disregarded by them at their own back doors. There is, moreover, one kind of fact in relation to these horrors which is not at all as familiar as it ought to be and will be, and that is the names of the people who make a living or a fortune out of the suffering and degradation of their fellow-creatures. The man who lives by letting a pestilential dwelling-house is morally on a par with a man who lives by keeping a brothel, and ought to be branded accordingly. But though that necessary if unpleasant business be worth doing, it is, of course, subordinate to the constructive work of finding a solution for this complex difficulty. As the game of suggesting remedies, more or less partial, is now well on foot, it may be worth while, by way of guidance for further speculation, to recall public attention to the remedies which have already been proposed in the most competent quarters.

The latest and most authoritative treatise on the subject is to be found, of course, in the report published last year of the Parliamentary Committee appointed to inquire into the working of Sir R. Cross’s and Mr. Torrens’s Acts. The report itself, indeed, as often happens in such cases, is of far less value than the evidence on which it is based, and which throws light upon a great many things besides the causes of the comparative failure of the measures under consideration. But, halting and mealy-mouthed as the report is, there are at least two great difficulties in the way of any substantial progress in this matter which it indicates with sufficient clearness. These are the extravagant compensation which on the principles at present in vogue has to be paid to the owners of rookeries and the reluctance of the vestries or other local authorities to make use of the powers given them by Mr. Torrens’s Act of 1868 and the amending Act of 1879. The question of compensation meets us at every turn. The report deals with it more especially in reference to the wholesale clearances contemplated by Sir R. Cross’s Act, but it is no less an obstacle to the execution of the yet more valuable measures which originated with Mr. Torrens. For, great as the value of clearances on a large scale may be, the insistence upon the improvement or, if need be, removal of single pestilential dwellings or blocks of dwellings is more necessary still. The demolition of existing pigstyes, and the compensation of their owners at the real value of such pigstyes, as, to quote Miss Simcox’s words, “rotten rubbish,” is at the bottom of all real betterment.

It may, indeed, be questioned whether the owners of such dilapidated tenements should have the power of making the local authorities buy this rubbish at any valuation whatever, instead of being compelled simply to pull it down. But even if the local authorities were not hampered in their action, as they at present are, by the fear of incurring unjust expense, there is unfortunately too much reason to doubt their native zeal for the suppression of tumble-down or pestilential tenements, and that of their officers of health in calling attention to unsanitary conditions. Without being very impatient, people may well ask whether the time has not come to apply some more powerful goad to make our metropolitan vestries, for instance, do their duty in this matter. The report of the Parliamentary Committee, indeed, “pressed very strongly” upon the notice of the vestries and district boards the necessity of “that bit-by-bit replacement which it was hoped would come to be regarded as a constantly recurring duty, and, if performed with discrimination, would lead to the permanent improvement of a district without aggravating in the process the evils of overcrowding.” But the closest observers have been unable to detect any considerable access of alacrity on the part of the bodies thus exhorted since the delivery of this excellent advice, and that though they had the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1882 to help them.

The same lesson is to be read in the report of a committee of the Charity Organization Society (August 2,1881), which likewise deals with the whole question of the dwellings of the poor. This report also is a document to be carefully studied, especially on the financial side of the question, by all who wish to have a grip of the subject. Now, speaking of the enforcement of the sanitary Acts – including in that general term the measures of 1868 and 1879, the minute application of which is undoubtedly the first step towards a better state of things – this report says: “To enforce the law in London there are fifty-two vestries and local boards, each with a medical officer of health, and under them about three or four inspectors, who have, besides the inspection of houses, other special work. There may thus be said to be 260 persons taking care of the sanitary interests of a population of 4,000,000.” The work is totally beyond the powers of the persons entrusted with its performance, even if they were, as they too often are not, men of the highest zeal and intelligence. It will have to be committed to stronger hands. Meanwhile it is plain that not the most powerful body of officials could adequately deal with a matter involving such minute observation and constant vigilance unless they were supported by the organized zeal of a number of able volunteers. How many of the people who feel deeply about this question have yet taken any practical share in obtaining the enforcement of the present laws ? We are not of the number of those who believe that existing laws alone are adequate to deal with the whole difficultly. The evil influence of our system of building leases is one point among several which will call for the attention of the Legislature. But it is certainly putting the cart before the horse to cry out for more State interference while the stringent laws already existing – laws for the repair or destruction of unsanitary dwellings, for the removal of nuisances, against overcrowding, and so forth – are allowed to remain a dead letter. Whatever else is wanted – and much will be wanted – the personal exertions of those who feel the heinousness of our present negligence are the first thing needful, and the one thing which must always remain indispensable.

A beginning has already been made in some quarters in the organization of voluntary effort for the enforcement of the law. That beginning may be small as yet, but it is all important. It is to those who have had practical experience in the attempt to give effect to the provisions of the Legislature, and to force local authorities to do their duty, that we must all now look for advice. It is for them to say where the hitch lies, and what are the best methods of overcoming the apathy or ill will of the authorities. It is for them to say whether new powers are required, and what they think those powers should be. This is the most useful direction which the discussion of the question can now take. It may be long before practical reformers have another opportunity as good as the present of relating their experience to attentive ears. If they strike now, while the iron is hot, the “bitter cry” will not again die away for a season, and leave no practical good behind it as the outcome of all our sympathy and all our remorse.