Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/City dwellings and city gardens

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I have before me a map of old London drawn about the middle of the seventeenth century. It gives an excellent bird’s-eye survey of the metropolis, which comparatively speaking forms a prolonged cluster of houses without any great depth, isolated warehouses lining the banks of the Thames a little below London Bridge, but scarcely extending beyond the Tower: trees, fields, and marsh stretch out towards the confines of Bow and Epping Forest. Windmills and farmhouses stud the country behind the Exchange and the Guildhall, whilst noblemen’s and merchants’ mansions peer above the trees which cover the slopes of Islington, Highgate, and Hampstead. The churches of St. Sepulchre’s, St. Andrew’s in Holborn, and St. Dunstan’s, stand, as it were, on the verge of the City, whilst the Convent Garden, the New Exchange, Salisbury House, York House, Suffolk House, and Whitehall may be said to have been entirely out in green fields. Bayard’s Castle, a veritable fortress, with its own stairs leading down to the water-side, dips its stone feet in the very mud of the Thames. The spot now known as Bridge Street, Blackfriars, is covered by a cluster of semi-detached, pent-roof, wooden-framed buildings such as we now see in remote villages in Hampshire. The Temple was one huge, compact sombre mass of dark red brickwork, lying back from the river, with a large lawn-like pleasure-ground intervening. Essex House, Arundel House, Somerset House, the Savoy, Salisbury House, Durham House, York House, Suffolk House, are veritable palaces, the gardens of which extend, with slight interruption, along the north shore to Charing Cross. On the opposite side of the river, which was then spanned by a single bridge, and that bridge crowded with tall, stately structures, lay Winchester House, with its spacious fruit-gardens and lawns—fit paradise for a prelate; and a little to the left, Shakspeare’s Theatre, the “Globe”—a classic and ever-memorable spot; behind which rose another circular building where “beare-bayting” took place. A few humble tenements scattered along the bank of the stream further on form the last vestige of buildings southward, and then all becomes country again.

Though within the walls the streets were narrow and the houses overhanging, though shade and moisture eternally enveloped the lower stories, and fevers and pestilences brooded in these mephitic enclosures, still, to the gates of the City it was but a bow-shot, and outside these barriers the winds of Heaven blew fresh and invigorating upon the pale face of the over-worked—was he over-worked in those days?—citizen. If fatigued after his daily labour, or desirous of a little healthy recreation, he could easily acquire a capful of pure air, and thus renew the vital energies of his mind and body with an evening stroll, or a dash of rural sport.

I have also before me the Post Office Map of London for 1863. Well may we say, “look upon this picture and upon that!” The small cloud of houses which in 1647 stretched from Temple Bar to the Tower, and from the Thames to London Wall, has expanded itself, until an area embracing more square miles than then it did acres, is a continuous mass of brick and mortar. Who can measure its extent, or predict the limits of its expansion? Will Mother Shipton’s prophecy be verified, and will Primrose Hill eventually become the centre of London? Primrose Hill! Why, in 1647 Primrose Hill lay far away in the outskirts of London, beyond Tottenham House, and no one besides that toothless, crazy old witch could have dreamed such a dream! Yet see how house has been joined to house, and suburb to suburb, until Highgate and Hampstead on the north, and Peckham and Clapham on the south, threaten soon to become part of this gigantic Babylon of buildings. London now encloses in its vast circumference Fulham and Hammersmith on the west, and Bow, Stepney, and Kingsland on the east. In vain should we look for fields in Islington or Pentonville—even the White Conduit Gardens, in which the mighty “Elevens” of the days of the Regency played their cricket matches, have disappeared. Shepherdesses’ Walks and Maiden Lanes have lost their pristine features, and form regular lines of streets interlaced with water and gas pipes, and electric wires. Your Paradise Rows and Pleasant Places are for the most part moral as well as material deformities. If anything green grows in them it is artificial, and the very air comes to their denizens choked with a dense floating concrete of dust and smoke. The fields lying between the Tonbridge Chapel and old Saint Pancras Church, across which, even so recently as the end of the last century, passengers used to go after dark in bands of seven or eight, armed with staves and bearing lanterns, for fear of highwaymen—what has become of them? Skinner Street and Somers Town have sprung up, producing an ill-conditioned, poverty-stricken crop of tenements. Paddington and Notting Hill have likewise fallen victims to this mania of house-rearing. Why! when I was a boy it was a delight to tramp north-westward of a summer’s evening and drink a glass of ale in the gardens of the “Yorkshire Stingo!” Now it is necessary to take rail, if one would escape from the soot and dirt of London, plant foot upon the soft sward, view a waving corn-field, or inhale a mouthful of fresh air. It is in vain we look for anything redolent or bright within an easy walking-distance of the heart of London. We are hemmed in on every side by brick and mortar suburbs. No gardens, no parks, no meadows, no verdure,—all is defaced and denaturalised by street upon street.

The fact is, London—or shall we rather say its millions?—is suffering from a plethora of houses which threatens its inhabitants with a veritable congestion of the lungs. All work and no play is a sad thing indeed, mentally, morally, and physically; but how are the poor—and the poor are the masses of our metropolis—to find recreation in their fœtid alleys, their brow-beaten, shame-faced-looking courts? Take Drury Lane and its neighbourhood, for instance, and ask how is it possible for those born in such slums of poverty and filth ever to see a green field, or to behold the bright face of unadulterated sky, or gasp with ecstasy on imbibing a gulp of the precious country air? One poor girl, when I spoke to her about trees and flowers, naively asked what was a tree? She had seen flowers in Covent Garden in the shop-windows—nay, some of her own neighbours cultivated a pot of geraniums, or may be a fuchsia; but when I described to her something that grew taller than the houses themselves, expanded their branches covered with leaves, and sheltered us from the winds and the rains, and the heats of heaven, it was beyond her ken. Although twelve years of age, she had never been above half-a-mile away from the court in which she was born. I may safely say that she is but a type of hundreds—nay, of thousands, who first see the light in these miserable alleys, whose infancy is spent, ragged and neglected, in our crowded thoroughfares, and who are liable to be trodden on by men, or trampled under foot by horses, or run over by the wheels of carts and carriages.

What we have related of this girl from Clare Market, who lived comparatively so near St. James’s Park, will apply with tenfold force to the inhabitants of Poplar or Whitechapel, and it will also enable us to estimate the intense pleasure which those summer-trips organised by the friends of our Sunday and Ragged Schools afford to the young poor of our metropolis. A blade of grass to them is a rarity, and, in their eyes, more precious than emeralds to a duchess. They have been accustomed to see leaves and flowers isolated in window-sills, faded and dwarfed themselves by the want of pure air and natural sunlight—but fields and hedgerows and woods, uplands studded with trees, and valleys down which rippled a stream of living waters—such a picture had never entered their imagination. Their little minds were squared and hardened by the begrimed bricks and gritty flags of their own sombre courts.

This is unquestionably a shocking state of things. From whatever point of view we regard it, it is equally deplorable. The result is that London produces an artificial human being weak in body and deformed in mind. The little Bedouin of our streets is born in a densely crowded court, and bred in the seething haunts of depravity; all his faculties are stunted and perverted, and he has no healthy appreciation—no healthy enjoyment of life. The sounds with which his ear is most familiar are those of railing and cursing; the sights which meet his eye are repulsive and demoralising—shadow, shadow everywhere—and in the thick gloom of this fearful social darkness, like cryptogamic plants, he vegetates rather than lives. The only vigour which he manifests is that of a precocious and preternatural shrewdness, which enables him to graduate early in the science of wickedness and vice. From infancy to manhood he is taught to war against his species, and prides himself in the ignoble triumph of “doing” his fellows. Nor is this to be wondered at. Uncared for, an outcast from all that is good, a Pariah from the better influences of society, an Ishmaelite, indeed, in this hand-to-mouth course of existence, this deadly struggle to obtain a livelihood—he cannot but contract the meanest habits and develope the least worthy qualities of his human nature.

Is there no means of counteracting this growing and perilous mass of living, active evil? Is it ever to be in our midst the prolific seed of corruption? Is this gangrene for ever to eat into the vitals of our metropolitan population? Is there no remedy against its extension? Are we powerless before this monster of mischief?

Let us investigate the causes. They may be reduced under two heads, viz., the densely-crowded state of those districts in which the poor live, and the want of light, air, and redeeming scenes.

The densely-crowded districts! It is impossible for any one who has not seen and examined a Spitalfields or Houndsditch for themselves, to conceive a hundredth part of the wretchedness which is produced by this overpopulation. A few years since the evils resulting from this system had risen to such a height that Parliament interfered, and a remedy was applied in the shape of a Lodging House Act. For a short while the abomination was mitigated, but only to burst forth again with fresh horrors. The crowded state of London thoroughfares, the vast and expanding proportions of London trade and commerce, required new streets to be laid down, new docks to be constructed, new railways to be pushed almost into the heart of the metropolis. As a matter of economy the streets, the docks, and the railways were constructed in the poorest localities, where the value of property was proportionately low. One thing, however, was overlooked. In the calculations which surveyors and contractors made, the convenience of the poor had no place. Houses were demolished without one thought as to where the humble, helpless occupant could go. In the construction of the new streets in St. Giles’s, of Cannon Street, of Victoria Street, Westminster, of the Blackwall railway and the Victoria Docks, a city of tenements was annihilated, and those who lived there were ruthlessly turned adrift, without shelter, or the prospect of shelter. Some idea of the enormity of this cruel thoughtlessness may be derived from a single fact: in one district alone sixteen hundred houses were demolished, whilst only four hundred were built up to replace them. The occupants of sixteen hundred houses had therefore to be crowded into the four hundred, or seek a habitation in some remote district. Of course what was bad before became exaggeratedly worse afterwards. It is not enough to say that the evil has become fourfold, it may be said to be a hundredfold—for vice, crime, and disease multiply in a geometrical ratio.

It has been urged that when the Legislature concedes a railway which proposes to pass through a densely-populated neighbourhood, the Company should be compelled to make good the damage which they inflict upon the poor, by filling up the void which they create, and that for every tenement they destroy they should reconstruct a new one. Creditable, however, as these philanthropic desires may be to the heart, they will not suffer investigation. The principle is opposed to sound political economy, and therefore must be dismissed. What we would point out is, that a good work can yet be accomplished, that the poor can yet be rescued from the sickening depravity in which they wallow—are forced to wallow. By the erection of Model Lodging Houses the gross evil of which we complain can be remedied—and profitably remedied, by those, too, who, not actuated by purely philanthropic motives, would like to turn even a Samaritan action to “their own advantage.” It has been found by experience that Model Lodging Houses will pay—that they return a very fair dividend to the invester, whilst they are really productive of incalculable benefits to the poor. In St. Pancras, in St. Giles’s, in Gray’s Inn Lane, the experiment has been tried, and with good results. No better example need be sought than that of Gray’s Inn Lane. It is erected in a swarming locality, where nothing but courts and alleys, crowded with the lowest class of Irish, abound. It rises in the midst of a dreary cluster, like an oasis in a desert, and order and cleanliness, comparatively speaking, reign within its walls. Not long since, too, another Model Lodging House was opened, with no small degree of éclat, at the East End, under the auspices of Mr. Waterlow, and it has been suggested that a portion of the magnificent donation of Mr. Peabody, the American merchant, could not be better laid out than in rearing these habitations in various parts of London for the use of the labouring classes. Why not, even independent of this fund, extend them? We would willingly see Committees formed for the purpose of carrying out this idea—the good work has already been inaugurated by the Mansion House Committee, with Lord Stanley at its head. There may be difficulties and obstacles in the way of effecting much good in the old broken-down malaria-breeding spots of the metropolis; but when new streets are being constructed, when new railways are uprooting these desperate neighbourhoods, these committees might be ready to construct by the side of them, on the ground thus cleared, fresh tenements especially for the poor. By this means we might hope to see that misery which now exists so rampantly in those parts of the metropolis, if not entirely dissipated, at least immeasurably mitigated. It is a work rather for the philanthropist than the speculator to carry out; but we can promise those who desire to do good, that they would be no losers—financially—by investing in an enterprise of this kind, if properly conducted.

Nor are we disposed to leave the matter here. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” To look upon the common objects of the earth, the trees, the fields, the grass, the shrubs, the flowers, the stones, the rocks, the streams, the sky and clouds, influences the lowest as well as the highest with kindred feelings. They enjoy in common, they appreciate in common, those gifts of Heaven, for the heart is invariably softened and ameliorated by communion with the direct creations of the hand of God—a tree, a blade of grass, a flower evokes sentiments of a far different kind and order to those produced by the sight of the most elegant mansion or the most stately building. In the one we see the imperfect conception, and the still more imperfect execution of man, in the other we trace the mind and witness the presence of that Omnipotence which orders the course of the planets and regulates the machinery of the universe. That Power is at work whether a sun is to be created, a comet launched upon its eccentric journey, a shrub to be reared, or a violet to be tinted. But how can those who are perpetually surrounded by dusty, begrimed, repulsive, darkened houses, to whom the sun only appears through a vapour of fog, who rarely see a patch of blue sky, and to whom the greenery of nature is familiar only by report—how can such rise above the grovelling accessories in which they dwell? How can they rise to the conception of things purer, nobler, holier? The imagination has nothing on which to fasten, and the consequence is that the mind sinks lower and lower until it is lost in hopeless depravity.

What we would advise, and what we feel is a debt society owes to these poor outcasts who have not the opportunities or the means of studying nature in the open country, is, that the number of gardens and ornamental grounds in the metropolis should be multiplied, and that every available plot in the centre of its densely-populated districts should at once be converted into places of recreation, and laid out in a tasty manner for the benefit of the poorer classes. It is true we have some noble parks: Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s and Victoria Parks, constitute the lungs of London, and a boon to hundreds of thousands have they proved. There is, moreover, a strong desire manifested to create a new park somewhere in Finsbury, to meet the requirements of the people in the northern quarter. There are, again, our squares and crescents which boast of an area of verdure, but these are private inclosures; the feet of the poor know them not. What we would particularly see is more open places in the neighbourhood of Gray’s Inn Lane, in St. Giles’s, in the low parts of Clerkenwell, in Shoreditch, in Stepney and Bethnal Green, to say nothing of the Borough and Lambeth. Take, for example, the neighbourhood to which we have before alluded—that of Gray’s Inn. Why should not its debasing tenements be swept away, and spacious, lofty, comfortable houses erected in their stead, surrounded by green courts? By constructing them of a proportionate height a less ground area would be required, and the space thus gained might be planted with trees, like the boulevards of Paris. This would embellish London in the right direction. We know that even after all this has been accomplished there are moral difficulties to be overcome, and that it is no light matter to change the habits of that class which has been accustomed to inhabit the lowest slums. But we contend, nevertheless, that it is—and experience confirms our views—possible to effect a great change, and to improve the denizens of our courts and alleys by showing that we take an interest in their welfare, and by giving them houses of which they may justly be proud. The spirit of man is moulded by his surroundings, and if we want to elevate him we must encourage in him a taste for order, cleanliness, and sobriety. When we have effected this we shall have laid the foundations of better hopes in him. He will not be content to rest here. His aspirations will be after something better, higher, and nobler. Having housed him well, and placed within his reach the tasteful objects of nature, having created for him gardens and taught him to appreciate the handiwork of Creation—of a leaf or plant—we may be sure that we have improved his nature, and prepared the soil for a higher degree of culture.

London is daily increasing. This is, then, a grave consideration—so grave, indeed, as to lend weight to the suggestions we have thrown out. The Registrar-General, in his report lately published, made some sensible observations on this enormous overgrowth. “Whether London,” he remarks, “is equal to the task of providing, by new and improved arrangements, for this constant accumulation of human beings within its limits, remains to be determined by experience. When a family increases in its narrow lodging, in circumstances of dirt and squalor, that increase which should be its blessing becomes its bane, and at last fever destroys what slow disease may have spared; and in a state or city the growth of a population is not a strength to be trusted, but a weakness to be feared, if improvement in its physical and moral condition is not commensurate with its extension.” How in some measure this difficulty may be overcome we have attempted to point out above.

C. T. Browne.