Thursday, 24 January 2013

Woolwich and the Assassinating Stinks

Now, when I came to Woolwich, in the winter of 1889, it was to a parish situated on the banks of the Thames, which was then, especially in hot weather, an open sewer that sent forth assassinating stinks, while the foul Lea and the untreated sewage of North Woolwich and a part of Ham was still poured into our boundary-stream. Life on its banks could hardly be salubrious. A boy in my Sunday-school tumbled into the Thames. He was promptly pulled out, but was ill for a fortnight from the " water" he had swallowed. A man in the next street was down with dysentery, derived solely, his doctor said, from his working on Thames barges. The whole parish of Holy Trinity is on the river flat, and so without the alleviation of the currents of air possessed in every other part of the undulating hilly district of Woolwich and Plumstead. It is, in shape, an isosceles triangle, with four hundred yards of the Thames as its base and thirty yards of the Market Square as its apex. Into its thirty-two acres were  crammed (without any lofty " model" lodging- houses or tenements) 4,300 people, so that while for Woolwich generally there were thirty-six persons per acre, in my parish there were 125. Into this triangle lanes and courts were crammed, while in many cases even the back yard of a house had been seized upon as a site for another house. The lifting of a brick in a yard showed a substratum of sewage. It was difficult to find any closet in the parish with a water-supply. Whole streets were without dustbins. Cellars were used as bedrooms. Seven adults were found occupying one very dirty room, with one bed, in a house let at five shillings a week for its two rooms, of which the lower one was quite uninhabitable, while the boards of which the whole dwelling was composed were broken away in several places so that the sky could be seen, and the walls were broken and black, and the roof leaked. In another house of ten rooms there were nine families and one closet, without a water-supply.
     In the worst parts I found that the visit of the one inspector of the Local Board was four years ago, which was hardly surprising when he had five thousand houses in Woolwich to inspect. Into one bedroom the rain penetrated in so many places that the mother of six children said "Some nights we did not know how to keep shifting the children about in their beds to keep the water from dropping on them." In the lower room the smaller children could, and did, crawl through the holes in the floor, and the rent of this two-roomed house was £13 a year! Next door I picked from the floor-joists a fungus eighteen inches long that had grown in a fortnight, and I exhibited it at a lecture with the label, "Local Board Vegetation." Another house that was a regular death-trap from dampness (one of the chief causes of consumption) held two families in four rooms, and the rent of this suburban and riverside villa was only £18 4s. a year! There were eighteen public-houses and eighteen four-penny lodging-houses for tramps of both sexes and casual labourers at the docks and elsewhere. Part of the parish was locally and expressively called "The Dusthole," and formed an Alsatia for vice and crime that it was thought by the respectables and rulers of the town convenient to ignore, and even politic to allow. Mr. Montagu Williams, then our police magistrate, described it in print as the worst plague-spot in London, and had in vain called upon the Local Board to do something for its purification. Cannon Row, therein, was almost entirely composed of brothels of the lowest kind, and nearly one hundred crimes came from it to the notice of the police in six months. Rents were high, and frequently raised, sometimes because the owner had effected some so-called improvements, which were, in reality, a tardy discharge of his duty, and sometimes simply because there was then never an empty house, or even room, in the parish, and the difficulty of finding lodging near the work caused almost any rent to be paid.
    Plainly,it was a mockery to preach " temperance, soberness, and chastity," until a better environment made better lives possible. I therefore had to set about a work that was new to me, to act promptly, and, at first, alone. As one who had seen in East End slums the good effect produced by the demolition of insanitary hovels and the erection on their site of larger and better dwellings, one of my first thoughts was to get some trust or company to build such houses. But in vain the price of land was too high, because the rents to be drawn from hovels (and especially brothels) was so high where "empties" were unknown, and repairs were not enforced. Then I tried a lecture by my friend Mr. Atherley Jones, M.P. No one came but a few of my own congregation, and no local paper even mentioned the lecture. It seemed difficult to get anything done ; but difficulties are not synonymous with impossibilities, and they are generally indications of being in the right path. Should I bring cases one by one before the fainéant Local Board ? That was infected and swayed by landlordism and included some of the owners of, or agents for, the worst places in the parish. So then I quietly invoked the aid of the Mansion House Council on the Dwellings of the Poor (31, Imperial Buildings, Ludgate Circus), which had shown its power and persistence in other parts of London. Its chief inspector came down at once, and speedily procured for me a list of a hundred instances of insanitary defects and nuisances in part of my parish. Publicity, however, was obviously needful, and so a little later I wrote a series of articles in the Woolwich Gazette. As forcibly, and with as much detail as I could compass, I described the evil, suggested the causes and the remedies, and at the end formulated certain demands, the chief of which were :

1. Appoint a Medical Officer of Health.
2. Have two inspectors instead of one.
3. Adopt the pail system and a daily clearance of refuse.
4. Have automatic flushing cisterns to w.c.'s.
5. Thorough and house-to-house inspection.

     Then the ball opened. All these proposals were opposed and even derided. (This was in 1890, but in 1892 every suggestion had passed into law and practice except No. 3.) The Local Board was aghast. "What can his motive be?" inquired a leading member of its Sanitary Committee. "He must be stopped, or he will be a perpetual nuisance," cried another. That I only wanted to draw attention to myself was the common idea, born of the dominant commercial habits of thought. Others "wished that the reverend gentleman would stick to his spiritual duties." I answered in the local paper:
     "I regard as a spiritual duty the removal of the stumbling-block in the way of comfort, or health, or decency that is in my brother's path, and I cannot regard that as a spiritual religion which ignores the needs and claims of men's bodies. One should find each landlord of a tenement occupied by the poor taking pride in doing everything to promote their comfort, instead of refusing repairs or threatening all who complain to the sanitary authority with eviction or raised rent. One should find the local authority taking pride in keeping careless or merely mercenary landlords up to their duties. If one does not, then there is a need for a prophet to arouse in the name of God the righteous indignation and the popular clamour that will compel right action."
      The landlords' organ then tried the meanest argument, and asked, Would not improvement burden the rates? I answered that men were citizens in the first instance, and ratepayers only in the second, and that when "tenemental sin" has to be exposed, rebuked, and punished, no necessary expense falls upon the rates at all. Landlords have merely to be made to disgorge some of the money that they should have expended in the cure or prevention of noxious conditions, but have kept to themselves. Further, it should be obvious that sanitation and better housing will, of necessity, produce better health and more self-respect, and that the possession of these moral and physical conditions will more than anything else tend to lower the rates, and to make into self-reliant producers those who are now so largely found as out- or indoor paupers, casuals, or infirmary patients.
    Then they tried persistently the argument that no harm to health could exist, however comfort and decency might be affected, because, as the Local Board had asserted to the Government, when, in 1888, the Mansion House Council had asked for an inquiry, " The health of the town is thoroughly good, as shown by the Registrar-General's returns." This " proof of the pudding's in the eating" argument was gleefully brandished as a tomahawk already dripping with my gore. It sounded imposing; it was an imposition; for I showed that they were using as a basis the deaths in Woolwich instead of the deaths of Woolwich, ignoring the fact that our workhouse and infirmary, into which so many of the poor retired to die, was in another parish, and that, from our contiguity to some London hospitals, many other deaths of our people took place in institutions outside our limit. In spite of our outlying position, the hilly character of all the town, except my parish, the presence of four thousand picked young men in the garrison (whose extremely low death-rate — about 3.50 per thousand — of course lowered the general average of the town), and the many-acred lung of Woolwich Common, all of which considerations made us in a more favourable condition than other parishes of similar position — e.g., Bermondsey and Southwark — our real death-rate, whether in the table for the Metropolis generally, or for South London separately, was always nearer the bottom than the middle. For the year in which this controversy arose our death-rate was 20.2 (for Woolwich as a whole, but what for my parish?), and we were twenty-sixth in order out of the forty-one districts of London. For the two previous years the Woolwich rate had been 21.6 and 22.8. Thus I finally slew the assertion that we were exceptionally healthy. But still the words of the President of the Health Section of the Social Science Congress in 1884 were once more proved to be true: "Immediately the immaculate sanitary purity of any place, however open to just criticism it may be, is questioned in a spirit of truth and philanthropy, out rushes some maddened authority, whose utter abandonment of self-command is plain evidence that it has been very hard hit indeed, yelling maledictions in which 'liar ' and 'calumniator' are the only articulate sounds."
     I was kept busy with the pen for a long time in presenting fresh facts and meeting old errors and untruths ; but men no longer lived in a fool's paradise, and the poor began to know their rights, and how they might be obtained. A friend of mine was agent for some cottages in my parish. One of the tenants pointed out a defect, and asked for attention. He said he was very busy with other property, but would come to it in time. "If you don't do it at once, I'll tell the parson," was the answer, which he retailed to me with some amusement. To be the people's tribune, you must become the landlords' bogey. Property-owners develop theological grievances, and leave the church to join a chapel, where they hope to find an independent congregation with a dependent minister. A novel with a purpose, "Down in the Flats" (Fisher Unwin), says: "But for the parson, many a foul nuisance would have survived condemnation, and many a vitally necessary improvement would have been postponed until its proposal was forgotten . . . and in cases demanding external pressure, the parson was the only man to be looked to for tackling negligent, or curbing tyrannical, authority. Bad landlords are his Ahab, and he is their Elijah. Nor is it unknown to local historians " (the novel speaks of Bristol ; I found it true also in Woolwich) " how, in spots most unlike a vineyard, collisions have occurred between the two, the Ahab owner, quivering with rage, railing from off some shaky roof or from the edge of some unsavoury drain: 'You call yourself a minister of the Gospel? Look what expense you're putting me to! Yah! I know you ; you're no gentleman!' A very 'Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?' And the reply might be expressed thus: 'Yes, I have found thee ; and so long as you let sick folks lie under dripping roofs, or let their drain-pipes be clogged, and their yards flooded with sewage, so long will I find thee, O thou nineteenth-century Ahab!'
     The next step was to form a local committee of the Mansion House Council, with the rector, a doctor, and some vigorous working men thereon. (I may note, by-the-by, that throughout my campaign I had not a word or act of sympathy from any Nonconformist minister, nor even from any of my brother clergy, except the Rector of Woolwich; deacons and churchwardens were apt to be property-owners.) We put out handbills inviting aggrieved tenants to communicate pri- vately with us, and soon the dusty complaint-books at the parochial offices began to bear the frequent blossoms of our name as we verified complaints, forwarded them, and showed we meant business. I frequently entered twenty complaints in one day. Then we got what the landlords' organ described as "Coercion for Woolwich," as the Mansion House Council got a clause inserted into the Infectious Diseases Act compelling our recalcitrant Local Board to appoint a Medical Officer of Health. Partly from finding that it was useless to kick against the pricks, and partly from the persuasions of this Medical Officer of Health, now Professor W. R. Smith, things began to move more rapidly, and inter alia we obtained, since the passing of Ritchie's Act, fifty-three orders closing houses as unfit for human habitation.
    To become at once archer and target had not entered my mind, but on receiving a requisition from working men, I consented to be a candidate for election on to the Local Board. This caused some excitement on both sides, and nearly three thousand more votes were polled than in the previous election, and I was returned, to the music of the gnashing of the teeth of slum-owners, only second to a colleague who ran on the same lines, and was at the head of the poll. In our address to the electors, which I drew up, I see that we said :
      "The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Poor made it plain that the worst landlords always tried most to get on a Vestry or Board, to 'protect' the property of themselves and their friends from the beneficial action of laws passed for the protection of the tenants. We want on the Board men who will:
     "1. Promote sanitary reform in a different fashion from those who have resisted the appointment of a medical officer, and considered one inspector sufficient for four thousand houses, and maintained that there was no need for action to improve the dwellings of the poor.
     "2. Allow no further procrastination in the matter of providing public baths and washhouses for Woolwich. You remember how eagerly you signed a memorial eight months ago, calling on the Board to act. They have only just now taken the first step in the matter, and that only when shamed by the rapid decision and action of Plumstead.
     "3. Promote the adoption of the Free Libraries' Act for Woolwich. The adoption was lost on a poll, largely in consequence of landlords (some of them members of the Board) threatening tenants with a rise of rent if they voted for the Act.
     "4. Be in favour of giving contracts only to those who will guarantee to pay their workmen not less than the fair and accepted wages of their trade. No fair master objects to such action, while public bodies should be careful to protect both workmen and the public from the many evil results of underpaid work. This applies also, as the L.C.C. has shown, to the servants of the Board."
     Next year I was able to report progress all along the line — landlords were making a virtue of necessity ; plumbers and jobbers were making their fortunes; tenants were alive to their rights, and knew how to get the laws passed for their protection put into force. One hundred and twenty-six houses were dealt with under the Housing of the Working Classes Act during the year, and I noted that out of 233 complaints in the book of the Board, 127 had been lodged by me as secretary of the local committee of the Mansion House Council.
     Quid plura dicam? I have given simply an illustration of what can be done, and that in a short time, where evils exist. The necessary steam-power exists in the shape of many Acts and orders, the machinery exists in the shape of the Borough Council or District Council, and all that is needed is a single resolute citizen to turn on the steam. And if that citizen be also the clergyman of the parish, he need not fear that his spiritual work will be omitted or even hindered by atten- tion to the more secular demands of health and decency. The conversion of a privy into a proper water-closet will not obstruct the conversion of souls, nor will the removal of dampness from the houses of the poor make his sermons perpetually dry.

by John William Horsely, Wells Gardner Darton & Co. 1911

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