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The Hopeless Poor
by [?]

By fits and starts the public wake up and own with much clamour that there is a great deal of poverty in our midst. While each new fit lasts the enthusiasm of good people is quite impressive in its intensity; all the old hackneyed signatures appear by scores in the newspapers, and “Pro Bono Publico,” “Audi Alteram Partem,” “X.Y.Z.,” “Paterfamilias,” “An Inquirer,” have their theories quite pat and ready. Picturesque writers pile horror on horror, and strive, with the delightful emulation of their class, to outdo each other; far-fetched accounts of oppression, robbery, injustice, are framed, and the more drastic reformers invariably conclude that “Somebody” must be hanged. We never find out which “Somebody” we should suspend from the dismal tree; but none the less the virtuous reformers go on claiming victims for the sacrifice, while, as each discoverer solemnly proclaims his bloodthirsty remedy, he looks round for applause, and seems to say, “Did you ever hear of stern and audacious statesmanship like mine? Was there ever such a practical man?”

The farce is supremely funny in essentials, and yet I cannot laugh at it, for I know that the drolleries are played out amid sombre surroundings that should make the heart quake. While the hysterical newspaper people are venting abuse and coining theories, there are quiet workers in thousands who go on in uncomplaining steadfastness striving to remove a deadly shame from our civilisation, and smiling softly at the furious cries of folk who know so little and vociferate so much. After each whirlwind of sympathy has reached its full strength, there is generally a strong disposition among the sentimentalists to do something. No mere words for the genuine sentimentalist; he packs his sentimental self into a cab, he engages the services of a policeman, and he plunges into the nasty deeps of the City’s misery. He treats each court and alley as a department of a menagerie, and he gazes with mild interest on the animals that he views. To the sentimentalist they are only animals; and he is kind to them as he would be to an ailing dog at home. If the sentimentalist’s womenfolk go with him, the tour is made still more pleasing. The ladies shudder with terror as they trail their dainty skirts up noisome stairs; but their genteel cackle never ceases. “And you earn six shillings per week? How very surprising! And the landlord takes four shillings for your one room? How very mean! And you have–let me see–four from six leaves two–yes–you have two shillings a week to keep you and your three children? How charmingly shocking!” The honest poor go out to work; the wastrels stay at home and invent tales of woe; then, when the dusk falls on the foul court and all the sentimentalists have gone home to dinner, the woe-stricken tellers of harrowing tales creep out to the grimy little public-house at the top of the row; they spend the gifts of the sentimentalist; and, when the landlord draws out his brimming tills at midnight, he blesses the kind people who help to earn a snug income for him. I have seen forty-eight drunken people come out of a tavern between half-past eleven and half-past twelve in one night during the time when sentiment ran mad; there never were such roaring times for lazy and dissolute scoundrels; and nearly all the money given by the sentimentalists was spent in sowing crops of liver complaint or delirium tremens, and in filling the workhouses and the police-cells. Then the fit of charity died out; the clergyman and the “sisters” went on as usual in their sacredly secret fashion until a new outburst came. It seems strange to talk of Charity “raging”–it reminds us of Mr. Mantalini’s savage lamb–but I can use no other word but “rage” to express these frantic gushes of affection for the poor. During one October month I carefully preserved and collated all the suggestions which were so liberally put forth in various London and provincial newspapers; and I observed that something like four hundred of these suggestions resolve themselves into a very few definite classes. The most sensible of these follow the lines laid down by Charles Dickens, and the writers say, “If you do not want the poor to behave like hogs, why do you house them like hogs? Clear away the rookeries; buy up the sites; pay reasonable compensation to those now interested in the miserable buildings, and then erect decent dwellings.”