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PAGE 2

The Hopeless Poor
by [?]

Now I do not want to confuse my readers by taking first a bead-roll of proposals, and then a bead-roll of arguments for and against, so I shall deal with each reformer’s idea in the order of its importance. Before beginning, I must say that I differ from all the purveyors of the cheaper sort of sentiment; I differ from many ladies and gentlemen who talk about abstractions; and I differ most of all from the feather-brained persons who set up as authorities after they have paid flying visits in cabs to ugly neighbourhoods. When a specialist like Miss Octavia Hill speaks, we hear her with respect; but Miss Hill is not a sentimentalist; she is a keen, cool woman who has put her emotions aside, and who has gone to work in the dark regions in a kind of Napoleonic fashion. No fine phrases for her–nothing but fact, fact, fact. Miss Hill feels quite as keenly as the gushing persons; but she has regulated her feelings according to the environment in which her energies had to be exercised, and she has done more good than all the poetic creatures that ever raked up “cases” or made pretty phrases. I leave Miss Hill out of my reckoning, and I deal with the others. My conclusions may seem hard, and even cruel, but they are based on what I believe to be the best kindness, and they are supported by a somewhat varied experience. I shall waive the charge of cruelty in advance, and proceed to plain downright business.

You want to clear away rookeries and erect decent dwellings in their place? Good and beautiful! I sympathise with the intention, and I wish that it could be carried into effect instantly. Unhappily reforms of that sort cannot by any means be arranged on the instant, and certainly they cannot be arranged so as to suit the case of the Hopeless Poor. Shall I tell you, dear sentimentalist, that the Hopeless brigade would not accept your kindness if they could? I shall stagger many people when I say that the Hopeless division like the free abominable life of the rookery, and that any kind of restraint would only send them swarming off to some other centre from which they would have to be dislodged by degrees according to the means and the time of the authorities. Hard, is it not? But it is true. Certain kinds of cultured men like the life which they call “Bohemian.” The Hopeless class like their peculiar Bohemianism, and they like it with all the gusto and content of their cultured brethren. Suppose you uproot a circle of rookeries. The inhabitants are scattered here and there, and they proceed to gain their living by means which may or may not be lawful. The decent law-abiding citizens who are turned out of house and home during the progress of reform suffer most. They are not inclined to become predatory animals; and, although they may have been used to live according to a very low human standard, they cannot all at once begin to live merely up to the standard of pigs. No writer dare tell in our English tongue the consequences of evicting the denizens of a genuine rookery for the purpose of substituting improvements; and I know only one French writer who would be bold enough to furnish cogent details to any civilised community. But, for argument’s sake, let me suppose that your “rooks” are transferred from their nests to your model dwellings. I shall allow you to do all that philanthropy can dictate; I shall grant you the utmost powers that a government can bestow; and I shall give six months for your experiment. What will be found at the end of that time? Alas, your fine model dwellings will be in worse condition than the wigwam that the Apache and his squaw inhabit! Let a colony of “rooks” take possession of a sound, well-fitted building, and it will be found that not even the most stringent daily visitation will prevent utter wreck from being wrought. The pipes needed for all sanitary purposes will be cut and sold; the handles of doors and the brass-work of taps will be cut away; every scrap of wood-work available for fire-wood will be stolen sooner or later, and the people will relapse steadily into a state of filth and recklessness to be paralleled only among Australian and North American aborigines. Which of the sentimentalists has ever travelled to America with a few hundreds of Russian and Polish Jews, Saxon peasants, and Irish peasants from the West? That is the only experience capable of giving an idea of what happens when a fairly-fitted house is handed over to the tender mercies of a selection from the British “residuum.” I shall be accused of talking the language of despair. I have never done that. I should like to see the time come when the poor may no more dwell in hovels like swine, and when a poverty-stricken inhabitant of London may not be brought up with ideas and habits coarser than those of a pig; I merely say that shrieking, impetuous sentimentalists go to work in the wrong way. They are the kind of people who would provide pigeon-cotes and dog-collars for the use of ferrets. I grant that the condition of many London streets is appalling; but make a house-to-house visitation, and see how the desolation is caused. Wanton, brutish destructiveness has been at work everywhere. The cistern which should supply a building cannot be fed because the spring, the hinge, and the last few yards of pipe have been chopped away and carried to a marine-store dealer; the landings and the floors are strewn with dirt which a smart, cleanly countrywoman would have cleared away without ten minutes’ trouble. The very windows are robbed; and the whole set of inhabitants rests in contented, unspeakable squalor. No–something more is required than delicate, silky-handed reform; something more is required than ready-made blocks of neat dwellings; and something more is required than sighing sentimentalism, which looks at miserable effects without scrutinising causes. Let the sentimentalist mark this. If you transplant a colony of “rooks” into good quarters, you will have another rookery on your hands; if you remove a drove of brutes into reasonable human dwelling-places, you will soon have a set of homes fit for brutes and for brutes alone. Bricks and mortar and whitewash will not change the nature of human vermin; phrases about beauty and duty and loveliness will not affect the maker of slums, any more than perfumes or pretty colours would affect the rats that squirm under the foundations of the city. Does the sentimentalist imagine that the brick-and-mortar structures about which he wails were always centres of festering ugliness? If he has that fancy, let him take a glance at some of the quaint old houses of Southwark. They were clean and beautiful in their day, but the healthy human plant can no longer flourish in them, and the weed creeps in, the crawling parasite befouls their walls, and the structures which were lovely when Chaucer’s pilgrims started from the “Tabard” are abominable now. If English folk of gentle and cleanly breeding had lived on in those ancient places, they would have been wholesome and sound like many another house erected in days gone by; but the weed gradually took root, and now the ugliest dens in London are found in the places where knights and trim clerks and gracious dames once lived. In the face of all these things, how strangely unwise it is to fancy that ever the Forlorn Army can be saved by bricks and mortar!