Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 6
All that is strictly practical that I have to say to-day could be summed up in a very few words. I have no changes in the law to suggest. I have not thought it well to relate the past history of inclosures, nor even to prepare for you statistics, neither have I touched on recent legislation respecting commons. I have had but one end in view in writing this paper the laying out and opening small central spaces as public gardens.
I have to interest you in accomplishing the object. "There is little to see, and little to say; it is only to do it," as was once said by a hard worker. I cannot transport you all to see the good sample-work which there is in some few neighbourhoods in London. I can, therefore, only ask you to let me describe in some detail the need of these gardens, then what has been, and what, it seems to me, should be, done, with various kinds of small spaces. This paper contains this description and information, as to the very simple preliminary steps necessary to be taken to render some of these spaces available for public use; but though so much of it is thus necessarily descriptive, it is only on the ground of its bearing on distinct practical results that I trouble you with it.
There are two great wants in the life of the poor of our large towns, which ought to be realised more than they are—the want of space, and the want of beauty. It is true that we have begun to see that a whole family living in one room is very crowded, and we have been for some years well aware that it would be a good thing if we could manage so to build that a working man could pay for two or even three rooms; it is true that we have learned that the extreme narrowness of our courts and alleys, and the tiny spaces, often only four or five feet square, called by courtesy "yards," which are to be found at the back of many of the houses filled with families of the poor, appear to us insufficient. We wish we could enlarge them, we wish that Building Acts had prevented landlords thus covering with rent-producing rooms the gardens or larger yards which once existed at the back of high houses; and we are alive to the duty of trying to obviate, as soon as may be, this want of space, to any degree to which it may yet be possible. But there is a way in which some compensation for this evil may be provided, which appears only to have begun lately to dawn upon the perception of men. I mean the provision of small open spaces, planted and made pretty, quite near the homes of the people, which might be used by them in common as sitting-rooms in summer. Even in England there are a good many days when at some hours sitting out of doors is refreshing, and when very hot days do come, it seems almost a necessity.
I fancy very few of you know what a narrow court near Drury Lane or Clerkenwell is on a sultry August evening. The stifling heat, the dust lying thick everywhere, the smell of everything in the dirty rooms, the baking, dry glare of the sun on the west window of the low attic, just under the roof, making it seem intolerable—like an oven. The father of the family which lives there, you may be pretty sure, is round the corner at the public-house, trying to quench his thirst with liquor which only increases it; the mother is either lolling out of the window, screaming to the fighting women below, in the court, or sitting, dirty and dishevelled, her elbow on her knee, her chin on her hand, on the dusty, low door-step, side by side with a drunken woman who comments with foul oaths on all who pass. The children, how they swarm! The ground seems alive with them, from the neglected youngest crawling on the hot stones, clawing among the shavings, and potato-peelings, and cabbage-leaves strewn about, to the big boy and girl "larking" in vulgarest play by the corner. The sun does not penetrate with any purifying beams to the lower stories of the houses, but beats on their roofs, heating them like ovens. The close staircase is sultry, the dust-bins reek, the drains smell, all the dirty bedding smells, the people's clothes smell. The wild cries of the thirsty, heated, irritated crowd driven to drink, the quarrelling children's voices echo under the low and narrow archway by which you enter the court. Everyone seems in everyone else's way. You begin to wonder whether a human being, man, woman, or child, is in very deed in any sense precious, either to God who made them, or to their own family, or to their fellow-citizens. Somehow you wonder whether, when one of them is carried out by the undertaker at last, to use a common old saying, "His room is not worth more than his company," so fearful is the life to which people take under such conditions, so terribly does the need of a little more space strike you, so impossible seems any quiet in which tone might be recovered by these exhausted creatures. And yet every one of those living beings, crowding almost under your feet, having to move from doorway or stair as you enter, has a human form, a human character too; somebody knows and loves him, some mother, father, sister, brother, child, watches for that face among the many, and would feel a great gap left in the world if that one came never any more up the court. Even the reeling drunkard would be missed. Each is surrounded by a love which makes him precious, each has also some germ and gleam of good in him, something you can touch, or lead, or strengthen, by which in time he might become the man he was meant to be. Each is a child of God, meant by him for some good thing. Put him in a new colony with wood, or heath, or prairie round him, or even lead him into the quiet of your own study, and you will begin to see what is in the man. It is this dreadful crowding of him with hundreds more, this hustling, jostling, restless, struggling, noisy, tearing existence, which makes him seem to himself or you so useless, which makes him be so little what he might be. Can you give him a little pause, a little more room, especially this sultry summer afternoon?
I think you may. There are, all over London, little spots unbuilt over, still strangely preserved among the sea of houses—our graveyards. They are capable of being made into beautiful out-door sitting-rooms. They should be planted with trees, creepers should be trained up their walls, seats should be placed in them, fountains might be fixed there, the brightest flowers set there, possibly in some cases birds in cages might be kept to delight the children. To these the neighbouring poor should be admitted free, under whatever regulations should seem best. The regulations will vary according to the size of the ground and other local circumstances. In some cases where the ground is large it might, no doubt, be thrown absolutely open, as Leicester Square is, a man being always in attendance to keep order, though the people will themselves help to keep order very soon. In the case of very small grounds admission might be given to certain numbers by tickets placed in the hands of guardians, schoolmasters, ministers of all denominations, Bible-women, and district visitors. Though, no doubt, much supervision would be needed at first, after a time an old man, any not too feeble old pensioner, especially if fortified with some kind of uniform, would be amply sufficient, if always there, to keep order. His wages would be small, and employing him would be a double charity. In these gardens, near to their own homes, and therefore easily accessible to the old and feeble, they might sit quietly under trees; there the tiny children might play on gravel or grass, with a sense of Mother Earth beneath them. There comrades might meet and talk, whose homes are too small and wretched for them to sit there in comfort, and for whom the public-house is too often the only place to meet in, or to read the newspaper. If visitors could gather small groups of children together, and use these out-door sitting-rooms as places to teach them games, read to them, or get leave for them to train the creepers up the wall, much good might be done, and much of the evil of playing in the streets prevented.
It is to the conversion of these churchyards into gardens that I would specially turn your attention to-day; there are a vast number of them all over London, as shown in a map prepared by the Commons Preservation Society, 1, Great College Street, Westminster.
I have ventured to draw the attention of some few London vicars to the question, and if you would each of you look in any crowded neighbourhood known to you, what might be done, and bring the question before the incumbents, churchwardens, or leading vestrymen, a great many of these graveyards might rapidly be made available. Of course there may be special local difficulties here and there, but the process is very simple where there is no opposition; and if those parishes where there is none would lead the way, that would soon bring the others to follow so good an example. The first step to be taken is to secure the leave of the incumbent of the parish. Notice must then be placed on the church-doors giving notice that a vestry meeting will be called to consider the scheme. The vestry then obtains a faculty from the Dean of Arches. The vestry can then be asked for a grant, and they can apply to the Metropolitan Board of Works for a further grant. In the case of St. George's-in-the-East £1,200 was voted by the vestry, and £3,000 by the Metropolitan Board of Works. This was of course a specially expensive scheme, the churchyard itself being large, and the freehold of adjoining ground, which was formerly a burial-ground belonging to dissenters, having to be absolutely bought. The expense in the case of the Drury Lane ground was about £160; the vestry became responsible for the whole, but hope the neighbouring parishes and private persons will help. It appears to me that the vestries should in the first instance be applied to, though doubtless private people would gladly help if necessary.
It may be interesting to you to know, so far as I can tell you, what has already been done in planting and opening churchyards. Mr. Harry Jones has induced his vestry to co-operate with him, and has made a public garden of the churchyard of St. George's-in-the-East. He obtained the hearty co-operation of his parishioners, and the place bears the stamp of being one in which they feel they all have a share. I believe the churchwarden gave the fountain, and the vestry, instead of having to be urged on to spend more, actually ordered 24,000 bulbs this spring, in their enthusiasm to make the place bright and pretty! The high wall covered with spikes, which separated the church from the dissenting burial-ground, has been pulled down, and the whole thrown into one. The ground has been laid out with grass, flower-beds, broad gravel walks, and plenty of seats have been placed there. The day I was last there, there were many people in the garden, one or two evidently convalescents. The ground was in perfect order, a gardener and one man being in attendance; but the people, though evidently of the lower class, were clearly impressed with a feeling that the garden should be respected. In fact the special feature of this garden seemed to me to be the evident sense of its being common property—something that everyone had had a share in doing, and in which they had a common interest. The tombstones are all removed, but measurements were taken, and an authorised plan made of the ground, showing precisely the place of every grave, also a certified copy of every tombstone has been entered in a large book. These precautions for carefully preserving power of identifying the spot where any body is buried, and securing the record of the inscription, have entirely satisfied the owners of graves and the legal authorities, and it would be well for vicars having disused churchyards to remember the plan as one which has met all difficulties in the way of removing tombstones.
The little churchyard in Bishopsgate which has been planted is probably well known to most of you. It is, I believe, a delight to many. A friend said to me the other day, "I often pass through it; it is certainly very nice. The only thing I am sorry about is that they have taken away the peacock and put two swans instead." "Are they not as pretty?" I asked. "Oh, I daresay they are," he replied; "it was the swans I was thinking of, they have so small a space, while the peacock was quite happy, because he always had plenty of people to admire his tail!" The Rev. G. M. Humphreys brought the question of opening the little burial-ground in Drury Lane before the notice of the St. Martin's-in-the-Fields vestry. They agreed to carry forward the work, and it was opened last week to the people as a garden. It is a refreshing breathing-space in a terribly crowded neighbourhood. It is bounded by a small piece of ground on the north which is admirably fitted for a block of dwellings for working people. If the Duke of Bedford, to whom I understand it belongs, would build, or arrange for others to build there, a block of houses where abundant air would be secured to them, and transfer there the population of some crowded court, he would do a great and good work.
By-the-way, this paper was written before the news reached me of the temporary closing of the garden until such time as the vestry have decided in what way to regulate the admission of the public in future. As much will doubtless be heard of this temporary closing, I may as well explain, that my friend, Miss Cons, was there on Thursday, and saw the extent of mischief done, and went pretty thoroughly into the whole question. There does not appear to have been any destructiveness of mischievous feeling—the people availed themselves in such crowds of the privilege of going in, that the ivy was very much trampled on, and the yuccas which had been planted in the middle of the gravel without any sort of protection had their leaves spoiled; but the shrubs were hardly injured, nor does there appear to have been any intentional mischief done. It is hardly wonderful that the ivy should be trampled on, seeing that no low wire fence, such as guards the beds in Leicester Square, nor little hoops, such as protect them in St. George's-in-the-East, had been placed. At the same time I may add that, seeing how very small the ground is in proportion to the dense population near Drury Lane, in the letter in which I brought the subject of planting it before the vicar, I suggested opening it by tickets distributed by workers in the district, rather than throwing it absolutely open to everyone. I thought that might have been done later, if it were found possible. I also pointed out to the man in charge, as I left the ground last week, that at first much supervision would be needed. If the vestry has the smallest doubt about the possibility of succeeding in keeping it in order, I have not the smallest hesitation in undertaking to do it for them for a year, if they like to trust me with it, and so meet the first difficulties by special individual care, and prove the possibility of conducting the experiment there, as well as it has been done in St. George's-in-the-East. But I have no doubt they will see their way effectually to carry through the good work they have begun, only I have not had time to communicate with them yet.
The large churchyard in the Waterloo Road is in process of being turned into a garden. The Rev. Arthur Robinson has collected £290, and is laying it out more like a country garden, and less like a place planned by a Board of Works, than any other I have seen. He has stumps prepared for ferns to grow on (and wants some, by-the-way, which some of you might send him); he has a nice bank, winding walks between the turf, knows which side of the church his wisteria will grow, spoke with hope of getting the large blue clematis to flower, wants numberless creepers to cover the church walls, and to wreathe around and make beautiful the few tombs which he leaves unmoved because relatives are still living and care to retain them. I understand he purposes applying to the vestry for help, and in view of the many churchyards there are to deal with, this would seem the right thing to do in general. At the same time, I can sec we should get a more country-like garden, the more the planning of it could be left in the hands of a man of culture, who loves plants and colour.
I believe St. Pancras Churchyard is now open as a garden; Limehouse is, I understand, thus utilised as far as the tombstones allow. The Rev. W. Allen has got his parishioners to memorialise the vestry to take some steps towards opening the ground in Bermondsey, but hitherto without success, and there may be others either now laid out or in progress—I earnestly hope there are—of which I have no knowledge.
I regret to say that an attempt to induce the Quakers to appropriate to the same purpose a burial-ground belonging to them in Bunhill Fields has utterly failed. The ground was one which would have been of almost more value for the purpose than any I know in London. It is close to Whitecross Street, which some of you may know as a street quite swarming with costermongers; the houses there are tunnelled every few yards with archways leading to as crowded courts as I know anywhere. Many houses of the poor actually overlooked the ground. In Coleman Street, which bounds the ground on the north, is a factory from which crowds of workmen turn out daily at dinner-time, many, no doubt, to adjourn to the public-house. But one hot day last summer, when I was there, dozens of them were sitting on the dusty pavement, their backs leaning against the great, dead, heated wall, which hid from them the space occupied by the burial-ground. There is not a tombstone in it, and it might have been planted and thrown open easily. Last summer I wrote to the Quakers, hearing they were about to sell the ground for building, laying before them the reasons for devoting it to the public as a garden. After urging them to give it thus to the poor themselves, I added a request that if they did not see their way to do this, they would at least pause to enable me and my friends who were interested in such under-takings to see whether we could not raise enough money to secure it for the poor, even if they determined to exact for it full building-land value. I certainly could hardly believe that Quakers could thus sell land once devoted to their dead, and which had never brought them in rent, but I thought it just possible they might hesitate to give what belonged to the Society all to the poor. At any rate, I was determined no want of effort on my part should lose for the people so valuable and unique a space lying in the heart of a crowded neighbourhood. My letter was never even considered by the meeting. The company in treaty for the ground did not purchase it then, because they thought it irreverent to disturb the dead. Yet although I have again and again seen and written to leading Quakers about it, and addressed several letters to their organ, The Friend, they have deliberately just sold it for building. No builder could be found who liked to buy the ground and disturb the bodies, and the Quakers themselves employed workmen to accomplish the most ghastly unearthing of the contents of the graves, uprooting five thousand bodies, which, I should think, never was undertaken before. They are selling the land for dwellings for the poor, and are excusing themselves by harping on the need of dwellings; but the immediate neighbourhood is to be dealt with under the Artisans Dwellings Bill, by means of which a large number of healthy homes for the poor will be erected, while I fear there is no chance of any other garden being made in their midst. And, especially as only a portion of the Quakers' burial-ground is to be devoted to workmen's dwellings, the number of rooms provided in the district will not be sensibly affected. They have excused themselves, too, because they have not dug up George Fox, but only some of their lesser leaders and their nameless dead. Even if they formed a slightly different estimate of the relative advantages of a few more rooms and a garden, I own to an amazed sorrow that the Quakers rejected a scheme by which the land might have been rendered a blessing to the living, without doing violence to what seems to me to be a natural instinct of reverence, ineradicable in every human heart, for whatever has been associated with the loved, or the great and noble who are no longer with us. Nor could I have borne, if I had been they, to draw so marked a distinction between the unknown, who had surely been loved, and the known, who had been famous, as to uproot five thousand bodies and spare George Fox's grave. I am sorry English workmen were called in to "separate those who had lain side by side for two centuries," that "the bones of young and old were" by them "placed in coarse deal boxes and re-interred in a large hole at the other end of the ground." That "many of them, while awaiting this fresh burial, were piled in a rude heap in a corner," with carbolic acid poured over them. Is this the lesson our workmen are to learn? Are they, too, valueless because so nameless? These poor bodies now mouldering away were once animated by spirits of beloved men and women. That which was once the form which embodied any human soul, named or unnamed, would have seemed to me worth a little gentler care. Better have let it mingle quietly with the dust and feed the trees and the daisies, keeping the resting-place of the dead one also for the weary and the poor.
I deal with the matter thus at length because the Quakers still have a burial-ground in Whitechapel and one in Bermondsey, which would be available as gardens, and which they have not yet sold; and also because I am not aware that they have decided how they will deal with the small portion of the Bunhill Fields ground which they cannot build over, where they have re-buried their unearthed dead. Have any of you influence with them, or can anything be done? The Whitechapel ground, though not nearly so central and important as Bunhill Fields, is well worth preserving. It is overlooked by the work-house, in the chronic wards of which there must be many who would rejoice to look out over trees and flowers, and who will never see them again unless this ground is planted with them. On the east side of the ground, too, is a wall; only to pull down that wall and put a railing instead, would give light and air to a whole street. Yet though Mr. Lefevre, on behalf of the Commons Preservation Society, has twice asked them to say whether, and if so on what terms, they would arrange for the ground to be put in order and used as a garden for the people, they give evasive answers, and I believe have it in contemplation to sell it for building. The rector of Whitechapel has written to them, the guardians have memorialised them. They make no responsive sign. I make these remarks in no spirit of hostility to the Quakers; some of my oldest and best friends are Quakers, and I have the deepest respect for them as a body, and well know they have been leaders in much that is good, thoughtful, and liberal in times past, to the poor to a remarkable degree, and I know the value of such gardens is only beginning to attract notice; but I think the facts as concerning the land should be well known to the whole Society and to the public, and I only hope that the Society will consider them thoroughly at their yearly meeting this month. Within the last few days I have received letters from leading Quakers, asking me to bring the question before their yearly meeting; but I think I must really leave it in their own hands; the responsibility is wholly theirs. Their best ground is now almost gone, the facts are well before them, and Mr. Shaw-Lefevre's offer is not only well known to the whole Society, but the correspondence between him and their committee has been published in The Friend newspaper.
There is another body which I hope will swiftly become aware of their opportunities for doing good with land which is under their control—the London School Board. They have in all fifty-seven acres of playground, which they entirely close on the children's one holiday, Saturday, and during the summer evenings. It seems almost incredible, does it not? But so it really is. Of course the fact is that the Board has not considered how to manage the supervision. But surely that difficulty ought to be met either by the Board itself paying for it, if that is within its powers, or by some society, such as that which has summoned us here to-day, or by individual donors. Having the ground which, however small, is at least available for games for a certain number of children selected by the masters, it seems ridiculous not to use it. A deputation from this Society will wait on the School Board on May 30, to press the opening of the ground upon them—for that deputation influential support is much needed. If any of you can help, I hope you will communicate with Miss Lankester. I spoke of the very corrupting influence of the streets, though I did so with reference to the small companies of children who might be brought together for quiet pastimes in our churchyard-gardens of the future. The School Board playgrounds would afford scope for the more active games. Surely this should be afforded by anybody who realises how very beneficial athletic exercise and active play would be to the children's health, and how happy it would make them. Why, I have seen two swings make children so happy, I have been ashamed to think how few we have in London. They don't take much space, and what delight they give!
A clergyman near here is about to fit up a yard as a gymnasium for the men belonging to a workmen's club, and doubtless others will do the same.
The uses to which even a small playground in London may be put would take long to describe. I have charge of two, where, besides opening them every Saturday and in the summer evenings, every May we have a real maypole—flowers from the country in thousands, flags flying, band playing, swings, and see-saws fully used, children marching, dancing, and skipping, and a kind and able body of ladies and gentlemen who know them amusing them, keeping order, and increasing by their presence the sense of festivity. The trustees of Lincoln's Inn Fields have, for the last two or three years, kindly granted to me leave to take in a company of the children of our tenants one afternoon each summer. It is a pleasant sight. The square is larger, I believe, than any in London, and the trees are most beautiful. They have also just given permission to the boys from the Refuge in Great Queen Street to exercise there two mornings a week from seven to nine o'clock. But this is a small amount of use to make of one of the largest, and most beautiful, and most central spaces of the metropolis, where there are few or no residents to be disturbed or interfered with at the hours when the ground would be most valuable; and it is to be earnestly hoped that the trustees will soon extend the privileges that they have hitherto kindly accorded to us to others. It appears to me to be simply a question of adequate supervision, and for this there are people who would be willing to pay.
It is well known that the Temple and Lincoln's Inn Gardens are now opened regularly on summer evenings to children. Why the managers limit the privilege to children I cannot think Surely older people need the air, and surely they would help unconsciously to keep order too. The more of such places that are open, the less will the grass in each be worn—the better the people will learn to behave. I have sometimes heard it urged against opening places to the poor that there is a chance of their conveying infection to children of a higher class. Setting aside the fact that out of doors is the last place people are likely to take infection, and that I presume the richer children would be under supervision as to playing with strangers, I ask you seriously to consider who ought to monopolise the few spaces there are in this metropolis for outdoor amusements. Is it the children whose parents take them to the sea, or the country, or the Continent, when the summer sun makes London unbearable? Is it the children who, if their little cheeks look pale, or their strength flags after an illness, are at once sent under careful supervision to Hastings or Malvern? Is it even the children whose sturdy and vigorous father has amassed a little money, and delights to take them by train on a Saturday afternoon to Richmond, Bushey, or Erith? Or is it not rather the tiny child of the hard-working widow, whose frail form seems almost to grow smaller year by year instead of larger? Is it not the pale child with great sunken eyes, just discharged from the hospital, the bed being wanted, convalescent, but to whom fresh air and a little quiet are still so needful? Is it not to the careful, motherly, little elder sister, patient nurse of eight or nine years old, hugging the heavy, round-cheeked baby, with two or three other children clinging to her dress, she who cannot get as far as the park? Is it not the sturdy urchin, son of a costermonger perhaps, whose hardy and energetic spirit scorns the bounds of the narrow court, and seeks wider fields with freer power of movement, but who has no chance, even when July comes, of climbing cliffs or jumping ditches? Should not the few spaces be available for these latter to the very utmost of your power? And again, do you really think now, people who live in comfortable houses, that you do or can escape infection by any precautions if small-pox and fever rage in the back courts of your city? You take all manner of precautions, I know (except, perhaps, what I should call the best of all), but you have no idea how near you, how all round you, this infection is, if it be indeed the subtle thing doctors say. The shops you enter, the cabs you travel in, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, all bring you into communication with those who are coming in contact with patients whenever disease is rife. Depend on it, your best chance of escape is to make the places inhabited by the poor healthy, to let them have open space where the fresh wind may blow over them and their clothes, places where they may be less crowded and gain health. You never will, or can, really separate yourselves from your neighbours; accept then the nobler aim of making them such that you shall desire not separation—but union.
Among the small open spaces which we must hope to see thrown open to the people in the time to come in a greater or less degree are the squares. Of course I know that the ground in the square gardens is the property of the freeholder, and that with the leases of the surrounding houses are granted certain privileges with regard to the gardens, which neither can nor ought to be arbitrarily withdrawn. But I hope the day is not far distant when it may dawn upon the dwellers in our West End squares that during August and September not one in fifty of their families is in town, and that it is a rather awful responsibility to lock up the only little bit of earth which is unbuilt over, which is within reach of the very old, the very feeble, or the very young; and that when they leave town they will, in their corporate capacity, grant such discretionary power to those who stay in town, to admit the poor to sit under the trees, as may seem consistent with their rights as leaseholders, interpreted perhaps a little liberally, as they contrast the utmost they can give in the somewhat dingy, early dried-up, London plane-tree, with the wealth of magnificent foliage of wood, or park, or mountain, to which they and their rejoicing family, baby and all, grandmother and all, go before the autumn sun dries up poor scorched London.
Also, oh, you rich people, to whom the squares belong, some few of whom too own private gardens actually in London, adjoining Hyde Park or Regent's Park, or saved on some great estate round the landowner's house, I think you might have a flower-show or large garden-party, once a year, for the poor of your neighbourhood, while you are in town to meet them. I have seen such things done in squares with delightful results. A whole district gathered together, old friends and new, in happy fellowship under the trees, the band playing, and the place looking its gayest. I have seen tents filled with flowers reared in the houses of the poor, each in itself a poor plant, yet, gathered together, looking quite bright and flourishing; and friends whom circumstances had parted, former clergymen, former visitors, meeting the poor friend whom else it might have been difficult to see. Have such a party once a year if you can; one afternoon in the summer will never be missed by the dwellers in the square, while the memories of many a poor neighbour may be enriched by the thought of the bright gathering in the soft summer air. I never was present at the flower-shows at Westminster Abbey, nor do I know how far they grew out of previous intercourse with the poor; but I feel sure that is the way to use any open space in London. The more the festivals can be connected with previous work the better; but those few who own ground easily accessible to the people will do well to put the ground once yearly at the service of those who do know the poor for a flower-show or garden-party. I know nothing that with less trouble gives more joy, or more thoroughly brings corporate life into a parish.
There are, besides the grander squares, some, I think, which are deserted by the rich, where "life"—that is, plenty going on—would be more acceptable than quiet; where the residents would be actually glad to have the gates thrown open, the beds set with bright flowers, the seats available for all, as in Leicester Square. I think even a band on a Saturday afternoon might be thought a gain. It is a pity these deserted wildernesses, with their poverty-stricken privet-hedges, are not by some common consent made to adapt themselves to the needs of the neighbourhood.
I have thus far dwelt mainly on open spaces as affecting the health or social life of our people, but there is another way in which such spaces might be made most valuable to them. That is, if they could be made really beautiful. Londoners are surrounded with the most depressing ugliness; the richer ones try with more or less good taste to mitigate this by decoration indoors; but those who have little or no superfluous wealth, and far less refinement, to lead them to spend any part of it in this way, are, at home and abroad, from year's end to year's end, surrounded by ugliness. If we could alter this, it would go far to refine and civilise them. Now it would be difficult to do this in their own homes at once; besides, that is a sphere where each should do it for his own family; but wherever a common meeting-place is arranged, within doors or without, there it seems to me that rich people might find a really useful scope for spending money. The poor man's independence does not demand that he should plant trees and flowers for himself, or decorate with colour wall or door, still less does it require that he should provide such beautiful things for the public, rich or poor. My sister has founded a society, called, after the Man of Ross, the Kyrle Society, which has for its object to bring beauty into the haunts of the poor; it has met with much support, and I hope the day may come when hospitals, mission-rooms, school-rooms, workmen's clubs, and, in fact, all common meeting-places of the poor, may be enriched by beautiful things given by it. It is dealing also with open spaces, is not only planting and bringing plants to the poor, but it is trying in other ways to beautify these spaces, and I am not without hope that gradually either mural decorations, inscriptions in tiles, or possibly cloisters, might be given by those who cared to obtain for their fellow-citizens, not only space, but beauty. This is being done in some cases. I will read you a short poem now being painted on zinc by a lady, to put up on a wall of a tiny little garden in a court in Whitechapel which is under my care.
SONG OF THE CITY SPARROW.
When the summer-time is ended
And the winter days are near;
When the bloom hath all departed
With the childhood of the year;
When the martins and the swallows
Flutter cowardly away,
Then the people can remember
That the sparrows always stay.
That although we're plain and songless,
And poor city birds are we,
Yet before the days of darkness
We, the sparrows, never flee.
But we hover round the window,
And we peck against the pane,
While we twitteringly tell them
That the spring will come again.
And when drizzly dull November
Falls so gloomily o'er all,
And the misty fog enshrouds them
In a dim and dreary pall;
When the streets all fade to dreamland,
And the people follow fast,
And it seems as though the sunshine
Was for evermore gone past;
Then we glide among the house-tops,
And we track the murky waste,
And we go about our business
With a cheerful earnest haste.
Not as though our food were plenty,
Or no dangers we might meet;
But as though the work of living
Was a healthy work and sweet.
When the gentle snow descendeth,
Like a white and glistening shroud,
For the year whose life hath ended,
Floated upwards like a cloud;
Then although the open country
Shineth very bright and fair,
And the town is overclouded,
Yet we still continue there.
Even till the spring returneth,
Bringing with it brighter birds,
Unto whom the city people
Give their love and gentle words,
And we yet again, descended
To become the least of all,
Take our name as "only sparrows,"
And are slighted till we fall.
Still we're happy, happy, happy,
Never minding what we be;
For we have a work and do it,
Therefore very blithe are we.
We enliven sombre winter,
And we're loved while it doth last,
And we're not the only creatures
Who must live upon the past.
With a chirrup, chirrup, chirrup,
We let all the slights go by,
And we do not feel they hurt us,
Or becloud the summer sky.
We are happy, happy, happy,
Never minding what we be,
For we know the good Creator
Even cares for such as we.
Is it not pleasant to think of the children having those words to read—painted in pretty colours, too—rather than looking at a blank wall? Sometimes I think we might even hope to carry with us the hearts of people by setting up for them deliberately very solemn and beautiful words indeed, coloured richly in lasting tiles. I do not see why at any rate our churches should not bear on their face some message to the outside world. I was fancying the other day, as I looked at the great, blank, dirty, dead side wall of a London church, which was seen from a principal thoroughfare, and which bounded the graveyard, long disused, but full of graves, how beautiful it would be to put in coloured tiles, along the whole length of the wall, Kingsley's words:
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long,
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever,
One grand, sweet song.
The words are simple, and would go home to the hearts of every passer-by; the bright colours, the look of expensive care bestowed on them, the fact that they are on the wall of a church, would give them a look of serious purpose, too great, it seems to me, for any sense of jar as to their publicity to be felt for a moment. It seemed to me that as the hurrying crowd went its way along the thoroughfare, the words might recall to someone high purposes once entertained and long forgotten, either in the struggle of life or the more deadening influence of success or ease—startle him to memories, at least, of a greater, nobler life than he was leading; to the weary and dejected it seemed to me they might point to the continuance in that great hereafter of all we seem to lose here, and all the while the words would be felt to be keeping watch over the dead, whose sudden silence is so hard to bear, but the harmony of whose grand, sweet song in that vast for-ever we catch now and again when we are doing noble things, and so tuning our hearts into more perfect sympathy with the music of God's universe.
I have spoken mainly of making open spaces, because I think the usefulness of the parks and the embankment is much more generally known. I am rather afraid of their being supposed to supersede the need of small open spaces quite near the homes of the poor, than of their value being underrated. The old and the very young cannot get to them often, nor from all parts of London. But I ought hardly to pass them over in absolute silence; they certainly do meet a quite distinct want on the part of the stronger portion of the community, who can get some sense of power of expansion, can see the fair summer sun going down behind the towers of Westminster Abbey, a space of sky being visible, so rarely seen from the streets or courts. Let us be very thankful for them.
Also when I undertake to speak to you about open spaces, though I cannot to-day dwell on them at length, I dare not omit all reference to those which are perhaps most precious of any, and which are by no means secured to us as yet as the parks are—our commons—the only portion of the land of England which remains in a living sense of the birthright of the people of England, and which, bit by bit, gradually and insidiously is filched away, under this and that pretext, by one big landowner after another, quietly surrounded by his effectual railing, and added to his park or field. Often is this done under shadow of law, often without any legal right, but just because no one is careful enough, or rich enough, or brave enough to oppose. My friends, there is a society which has done much good work, much unpopular work, which this session even saved you from encroachments on Mitcham and Barnes Commons; it is little known, it wants money support, and it deserves your full support of every kind—the Commons Preservation Society. Note down its address, I, Great College Street, Westminster, give it what support you can, but above all if ever you see a common threatened, or a piece of one inclosed, write and ask the Society whether it is legally done—what chance of redress there is. The Society has set itself to fortify local effort by advice, by parliamentary support, sometimes by money; it watches over the interests of Englishmen in the small amount of uninclosed land yet remaining to them. While house is being added to house and field to field, while one small farm after another is being swallowed up in the big estate, there are yet left for the common inheritance of Englishmen who have small chance of ever owning even a little garden of their very own, some few moorland spaces, set with gorse and heather, fringed by solemn rank of guardian fir-trees, where in the sandy banks their children yet may hollow caves, where the heath-bell waves in the faint evening breeze, and from which—oh, wondrous joy to us Londoners—still the far blue distance may be seen, witness to us for ever, as it lies there still, and calm, and bright, that the near things which overshadow us, which seem so tremendous, like tall London houses, built by man, and covering so large a portion of our horizon and sky, hemming us in with terrible oppressive sense of dreariness, may fade back and back from us in distance, till they become even lovely in God's fair sunlight, little jagged peaks only against His calm sky, and all softened into sweetest colour by the light He sheds over them.
Keep those fair, far, still places for your children, and your children's children, if you can: the more cities increase, the more precious they will be; for the more man's soul will long for the beauty, for the quiet, which the city does not, cannot give.
- Read at a meeting of the National Health Society, May 9, 1877.