A general impression prevails that such matters are managed better across the Channel, and among Londoners who have spent any time in France or Germany there can be little doubt that the local administration of many continental towns will compare favourably with that of our own capital.
It is true that in making such comparisons people are apt to forget some important facts which differentiate the conditions of municipal government at home and abroad. For instance, the prompt attention which streets in Paris receive after a fall of snow excites our admiration, when we remember the mass of half-frozen slush through which horses and vehicles have sometimes to plough their way during a London winter. But Paris, though it occupies an area of some 20,000 acres, is of small size compared with our capital, which, including certain suburbs, covers at least 122 square miles, or four times as much.
In spite of recent changes which have tended to decentralise control, and give a sort of 'home rule' to individual boroughs, this represents in the aggregate an enormous district for supervision, even assuming that the system of organisation is always the best, which it certainly is not. The labour supply of scavengers, even if it were recruited from our metropolitan reserve of 100,000 paupers and sufficed to meet such emergencies as might arise from a sudden snowstorm, could not be secured at a day's notice. Res magna est! The aediles of Babylon may have grappled with such a difficulty, but modern county councils must not always be held to blame if they fail in the attempt. London seems to have outgrown the possibility of an ideal self-government, at least so far as the cleanliness of its streets is concerned.
But apart from practical impediments, another obstacle to reform in the material condition of English towns may be recognised in that popular but much-perverted phrase, the 'liberty of the subject.' It embodies a national sentiment which we all reverence in theory. No free-born Briton likes to he coerced more than lie can help. On my first visit to Dresden I remember walking over a bridge on the Elbe and meeting two or three people on the pavement who muttered words to me as they passed. I was in a hurry, and did not at first notice that their remarks were addressed to myself. At last a man confronted me and sternly pointed across the road. It then for the first time occurred to me that I was infringing a police rule which required all loot-passengers going in one direction to keep on the same side of the bridge. The trottoirs were of ample width, and at that moment did not happen to be traversed by more than a dozen pedestrians, 'all told.' But I was in Germany, and being a law-abiding person I at once crossed over the way.
It is difficult to imagine the possibility of such a regulation as this being enforced—or even proposed—for Londoners hurrying over the Thames at Westminster, Blackfriars, or Battersea. We should hear a great deal about 'grandmotherly legislation,' and I am far from suggesting that such petty restrictions should be imposed in this country. Yet there are surely many directions in which our own police (to whose injunctions the man in the street. generally submits) might exercise more authority in the cause of public convenience.
For example, why should idle `loafers' be allowed to lounge about outside the doors of a gin-palace, obstructing foot-traffic and fouling the air with their cheap and nasty cigarettes?
Why should impudent little urchins, let loose from Board or parish schools (where they seem to learn everything but good manners), be suffered to run riot through adjacent thoroughfares, screeching, getting in everybody's way, and sometimes rushing along the pavement on roller-skates?
These are nuisances from which, sooner or later, Hooliganism is sure to spring. For ' liberty of the subject' we may here read 'licence of the street cad.' I have visited most continental cities, but for unchecked mischief and rowdyism among children of the poorer class, I have never seen anything equal to what prevails in London, and it has unquestionably increased within the last decade.
The presence of beggars and street hawkers, not only in the humbler quarters of town, but in streets lined with fashionable shops, is suggestive alike of misrule and mystery. And the mystery consists in the limitation of misrule. Here is an irregularity which is only tolerated because it has been allowed to become in particular instances monopolised. We may be quite certain that if all the mendicants and itinerant salesmen in London were permitted to do so, they would soon fringe the footways of Regent Street and Oxford Street from end to end. Why. then, is this privilege accorded to a few score of them denied to others? Pedestrians whose daily business or pleasure has made them familiar with those thoroughfares must recognise certain beggars, boot-lace vendors, &c &c., who have haunted thye neighbourhood for years. How do they come by a right from which their comrades are excluded?
An explanation, which discretion forbids me to repeat, is occasionally offered by cynics. Without believing idle gossip, we must all agree that the police would do well to discharge their duties impartially. If street begging and street hawking are to be allowed at all, there should be a fair field, and no favour, to all who follow those occupations. But if they are legally condemned as nuisances, they ought to be suppressed altogether.
In strictly residential neighbourhoods, the barbarous howling too frequently practised by vagrants under the name of street singing has long been defined by magisterial decision as a form of mendicancy disallowed by law; and if a constable is at hand, the offender can be moved on forthwith. But the police are not ubiquitous, and occasionally this sort of annoyance has to be endured for half an hour or more before any interference can be effected. Within the last twelve months or so these noisy intruders have taken to go about in gangs accompanied by a piano-organ, and, posing as specimens of 'the unemployed,' levy contributions from the slender purses of servant-girls and other simple women who, all unwittingly, give their pence to support an impudent fraud.
Not. long ago, through the mistaken lenience of our Government, lengthy processions processions of such men were allowed to parade the streets of London, rattling money-boxes in the faces of the public, and actually escorted by police on foot and horseback. It was only after many of them had been recognised as habitual idlers, and regarded with contumely by genuine workmen, that this unprecedented and highly inconvenient mode of soliciting alms was—with general assent—prohibited.
It has been repeatedly asserted, on conmpetent authority, that although there is unfortunately great distress arising from poverty in London and other English cities, the cases most deserving of relief are never those which are individually represented by street beggars. Most well-to-do persons subscribe to public charities; those who cannot afford to do so spare at least a shilling a week in casual almsgiving. Now if those coins were dropped into a carefully secured poor-box which could be set up here and there at street corners, the money under proper administration might be far more judiciously applied than for the support of habitual beggars, who, when once recognised as such, should be at once consigned to the workhouse.
The question of pauperism is, however, far too wide a one to be discussed in an article intended only to indicate urban irregularities which have long existed, which are wholly unjustifiable, and which might be speedily removed under proper legislation.
There is a spice of grim humour in the fact that London householders tolerate German street hands which would he execrated in Germany, and are plagued by Italian organ-grinders whom one rarely sees south of the Alps. Why are these aliens allowed to practise in this country a form of public annoyance which would not be endured in their own? The national taste for good music in England is no doubt exceeded by that which prevails in Rhineland or Italy. But there are cultivated ears at home to which the noise of ill-tuned brazen instruments and the barbarous strains of a hurdy-gurdy must be simple torture. Men engaged in literary or scientific pursuits, invalids lying restless on their beds, nervous patients for whom quiet is enjoined, are one and all disregarded, in order that perhaps a few children and nursery-maids may listen to a popular jig.
There is even less excuse for the intrusion about our area railings of the idle Italian boy with his unfortunate monkey and an accordion, on which he can only play a few dismal notes. This is a nuisance demanding repression on every ground. It is well-known that these boys are hirelings, sent into the streets by some disreputable impresario who lives upon their earnings. They are, perhaps, more to be pitied than the monkeys in their charge, but the whole business is a scandal. It means vicarious mendicancy of the worst kind, which has greatly increased of late years, but which, under proper police regulations, ought never to have been permitted to exist. We have beggars enough of our own nationality, without allowing their ranks to he supplemented by pauper immigrants.
An artificial and absolutely fallacious sentiment protects the itinerant costermonger, whose raucous yells are a disgrace to civilised London, from suppression. Cheap philanthropy fosters the idea that to put any limit to the exercise of his legs and lungs would he to interfere with the rights of industry, and so forth. The plea is absolute nonsense. By all means let the trade be plied where there is most demand for it, in the humbler streets of our Metropolis. But it is monstrous that householders who don't buy cheap fruit and vegetables at their doors should be daily annoyed, for hours together, in order that costers may pick up a stray customer among kitchen-maids and caretakers.
One of the most aggravating sources of offence to law-abiding citizens is ineffective legislation. We learn to endure evils which are called irremediable, or fly from those which we can avoid elsewhere. But when reform is promised and the agencies devised to secure it fail in their object, or are systematically defied, public patience is apt to give way. The highly dangerous and wholly unnecessary speed at which motor-ears and motor-bicycles have been driven through streets and roads for two or three years past evoked at length a storm of indignation in the Press, and after long and needless delay an Act of Parliament was passed which promised to deal with this pestilent mischief. But what has it really done? Owing to the lenience or apathy of local authorities the evil, so far as London is concerned, has scarcely been mitigated. The objectionable vehicles are indeed conspicuously numbered, but they career about much in their original fashion. Within the last few weeks I myself have seen scores of there dashing along frequented thoroughfares at a rate of fifteen or twenty miles an hour, to the terror of foot-passengers who happened to be crossing the road at the time, and at the imminent risk of colliding with any cart or carriage that chanced to be coming down a by-street.
In the name of common sense, what excuse can be offered for this perilous practice ? A cab driven furiously along Piccadilly would certainly be stopped by the police, although the 'fare' inside might be anxious to catch a train. A glance at the ordinary occupants of a motor-car will generally suffice to show that they have no such object in view. They are simply indulging in the vulgar amusement of 'going-ahead,' like the ` galloping snob ' who formerly used to invade Rotten Row. His pastime was cut short by general execration. Why should greater licence be extended to the motoring cad ? [It is hardly necessary to state that these remarks do not apply to motor-broughams, which do not exceed the pace of any other private carriage, and are therefore under complete control.]
Notwithstanding the introduction of tramways and the 'Twopenny Tube,' omnibus traffic in London seems to be as busy as ever. The companies who provide this form of conveyance for the public have certainly done much to improve the comfort and appearance of the vehicles employed. They are cleaner and better ventilated than they used to be. Their roof-seats are far more convenient and accessible than the 'knife-board' of earlier days, though it must be confessed that their weight and that of the iron staircase leading to them, in addition to twenty-eight passengers, must sorely tax the strength of two horses. Paris omnibuses have often three stout well-groomed animals, which seem better fitted for their work than those seen in London streets, where, owing to a want of system, our hard-worked beasts are subjected to a constant and unnecessary strain. It is in vain that printed notices are posted inside, begging passengers not to stop the omnibus oftener than can be helped. Ladies will insist on being set down at particular shops, even though they may he only twenty yards apart; and whenever there is a fresh start the poor horses suffer in lungs, heart, and sinew.
All this might be avoided if, along the line of route, halting- places were fixed at reasonable intervals, where passengers might be taken up or set down; and this should form the subject of a police regulation.
The omnibus companies themselves might remove one form of annoyance to the public by prohibiting conductors from shouting out the utterly unintelligible jargon which is absurdly supposed to indicate the destination of the 'bus. All Londoners know quite well, from the colour of the vehicle and the inscriptions on it, where it is going. But if a stranger were doubtful on this point it is certain that he could not possibly be enlightened by such ejaculations as 'Obun,' 'Stee-benk,' and 'Loophole'st Rarway' uttered in tones of angry remonstrance.
Conductors should be further instructed to use the bell-cord provided for communication with the driver instead of the abominably shrill whistle now commonly blown whenever the 'bus is stopped or restarted; as well as to refrain from the offensive habit of holding tickets and silver change iu their mouths before handing them—still wet—to the passengers. These may seem trivial irregularities, but they are unknown on the Continent. Why should we tolerate them at home?
It is satisfactory to find attention called in Parliament to the street danger involved by covered vans being driven by men who, from their position inside the vehicles, cannot look to right or left. But no attempt has yet been made to limit the hours during which heavy cartloads of timber, hay, straw, building-materials and even huge bales of dirty rags, may pass through the streets of London already overcrowded with lighter traffic. The manner in which carcases of beef and mutton are conveyed from market to butchers' shops is a standing disgrace to this Metropolis. It is not unusual to see them piled up and uncovered even by a cloth, in a carrier's van, while the driver is actually sitting on joints of meat which are to be served at table and eaten in respectable households. So far as I know, this disgusting practice is an exclusively English one. Many European capitals are familiar to me, but I have never observed in either of them anything approaching such indecency.
Not long ago the late Sir Henry Thompson, in an excellent letter to the Times, pointed out the sanitary dangers likely to ensue from the present objectionable mode in which dust and kitchen refuse are removed from London houses, and he made some useful suggestions as to the best means of remedying this evil. Here, again, we might take a lesson from foreign cities where—as in Paris, for instance—such refuse is removed not only more frequently, but under conditions which prevent the infliction of it needless and noxious nuisance.
The discharge of coal into our street cellars is effected in a way which leaves much room for improvement. The coal-cart is allowed to come at any hour of the day—often to the inconvenience alike of foot passengers and carriage folk; to empty its load, sack by sack, down the cellar-hole, and then to drive off, leaving the pavement for several yards round black with grit which adheres to the boots of everyone who comes into the house. The capacious wooden funnel—a usual appendage to every coal-cart in France or Germany—which might prevent this mess, is never seen here. But until it is introduced, householders who cannot rely on their servants to do the needful should at least spend a few pence in getting the coal-heavers, before they go away, to sweep up and wash down the flagstones of the footway outside. Yet this is rarely done except in 'smart' neighbourhoods. The average Londoner seems to care little for cleanliness out of doors.
The question of street-crossings offers it daily problem to most citizens. Whose business is it to keep them swept? The duty is at present undertaken by an army of irresponsible men and boys who, picketed at innumerable corners all over the town, stand holding their brooms and touching their hats to any pedestrian who is likely to spare a 'copper.' In wet and muddy weather they certainly render some service, and no conscientious foot-passenger likes to ignore it if he has a penny at hand. Now, supposing such it person in the course of it stroll goes over fifteen crossings and conies the same way back, his walk, if he is a liberal man, will have cost him half a crown! Of course no one actually incurs this expense. But as it matter of principle one crossing- sweeper deserves his fee as well as another. If they are paid at all, they ought to be paid uniformly. Sometimes an unsophisticated ratepayer asks why the parochial or metropolitan borough authorities who are supposed to keep our roadways clean do not extend that duty to street-crossings. The taxes levied for these and kindred purposes have increased enormously of late years, but if they do not suffice for their object, few householders would object to an additional charge of a few shillings if it would relieve them from an irregular and troublesome demand for daily gratuities.
Recent changes in the municipal government of London make it difficult for those who are unversed in such matters to understand which local bodies are responsible for the administration of certain districts, and why variations occur in its practical result. For instance, one would think that, after many years of experience qualified contractors might by this time have arrived at some definite conclusion respecting the best mode of paving urban roadways. Yet we find some laid with wood, others with asphalte, and others macadamised. On one point, indeed, there seems to be unanimity of opinion—viz., that, whichever plan is adopted, the roads and even footways may he broken up at inconvenient seasons for repair, or for the introduction of gas or electric light service whenever required, and whatever confusion it may entail. All this indicates a divided control and a general want of system.
Another mystery is presented by the remarkable disparity which exists in the roof levels of new structures often erected side by side in the same thoroughfare. No one wants exact uniformity of sky-line. But that one tenement should be allowed to tower two or more storeys above its fellows seems on every ground undesirable. Under the provisions of a former Building Act, the height of London houses was required to bear a certain proportion to the width of the street in which they were erected. Whether such provisions still exist I do not know, but if the colossal blocks of brick and masonry used as hotels and residential flats are to he multiplied, it is obvious that in course of time our capital will be covered with Brobdingnag lanes, or rather alleys, in which the distribution of light and air must be materially curtailed and effective sanitation rendered more difficult.
This is to be regretted all the more because in the busiest quarters of London considerations of expense. prevent the thoroughfares from being widened. To adopt such a course, for example, in Bond Street, where shop-rents are very high, might involve an outlay of millions. Yet through this generally congested carriage-way omnibuses and lumbering carts are permitted to run from Oxford Street to Piccadilly in the height of the season, with as much freedom as if they were rolling along a capacious boulevard.
The breadth of footways available for shopping-purposes would be none too great if they were occupied alone by pedestrians. But since the introduction of 'perambulators,' innumerable specimens of that domestic machine are wheeled up and down the trottoirs, apparently for the benefit of nursemaids who combine with their tender care of infant life a natural appreciation of attractive 'window-dressing.'
One may avoid some of these irregularities by turning from the streets of London into its pleasure-grounds. But even in the latter may be noticed much that requires strict supervision and careful reform. It depends, of course, to some extent on the direction in which we walk. I have often been puzzled to guess why, for instance, the south side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens should receive so much more attention from their respective custodians than the north. It is to be presumed that the inhabitants of Lancaster Gate and Tyburnia are as regular in the payment of their rates as the denizens of Belgravia and Mayfair. But they don't get so much for their money. At Hyde Park Corner and along Rotten Row order and decorum prevail. But the Bayswater portion of Kensington Gardens presents a different appearance. It is enclosed by a dwarf brick well and coping-stone mouldy with age and damp. Dirty children are allowed to climb about the seats and railings, to pluck up grass by the roots and scatter it over the paths, to sweep up gravel from the paths and strew it. over the grass. On a summer's afternoon they leave the ground defaced with scraps of newspaper and dirty rags. In spring they pluck all the hawthorn blossom within their reach. In autumn they fling up bludgeons into trees to bring the horse chestnuts down. On one occasion I saw, not far from the Round Pond, a circular trench being dug out by boys who were indulging on the greensward in a pastime usually confined to the sea-shore.
In pleasant shady spots under the trees rounders' and peddling football have reduced the turf to the condition of a dry skittle-ground.
No doubt it will be urged that the children of the poor are entitled to recreation. But recreation of this kind means mischief, and it seems hardly desirable that the beautiful sylvan retreat afforded by Kensington Gardens, close to a Royal Palace and rich in historical associations, should be turned into a public playground for future 'Hooligans.'
Proper vigilance on the part of park-keepers might no doubt impose some restraint. But unfortunately those functionaries are not vigilant. During a long residence in the neighbourhood I do not remember a single occasion on which I have seen one of there voluntarily interfere to prevent such irregularities as I have described. Probably they take their cue from the laissez-aller principle which seems to distinguish their official superiors. For many years the picturesque old Orangery (supposed to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren) in the immediate vicinity of Kensington Palace was used as a potting-house for plants, and but for the remonstrance of a well-known artist would still have remained devoted to that ignoble use.
Early in October last a score or more of the old trees in the Gardens were blown down by a severe gale which wrought destruction in many parts of this country. The trees were torn up by the roots, presenting a dismal and unsightly appearance. it is almost incredible, but it is nevertheless a fact, that for a period of five months they were allowed to remain lying where they fell, the heavy timber, gradually saturated by the fall of recent rain, damaging the turf on which it lay, and affording a gymnasium for noisy urchins. Without inquiring who was to blame for this neglect, most travelled Englishmen must feel assured that it would not have occurred in any other European capital.
Within a bow-shot from the Marble Arch there stands a handsome Gothic drinking-fountain erected in 1867 at the expense of a generous Oriental potentate, the Sooltan Bahadoor of Vijianagram. Its base occupies an area some four yards square. A richly decorated canopy and spire rise above it to a height of forty feet. It possesses scarcely an ornamental feature within reach which has not been damaged. Stone finials have been knocked off, carved work chipped, and mouldings defaced. That this is the result of wanton mischief there can he no doubt, for the injuries are entirely confined to the lower portion of the monument. Youthful ragamuffins may often be seen sitting in the basins, tampering with the taps and drinking-vessels, splashing water down on the steps, and climbing over accessible parts of the structure. And all this disorder occurs at it few dozen yards distance from the park-keeper's lodge, where policemen are constantly stationed.
But this neighbourhood is notoriously selected for another objectionable practice. Every Sunday crowds of persons assemble there to receive open-air lectures on politics, theology, and what not, from fanatical dunces whose folly is only equalled by their assurance. Now, without discussing the moral effect of these diatribes upon that popular philosopher, the 'man in the street,' it is obvious that the place and the mode of their utterance must largely interfere with the comfort of the public. The parks are intended for physical recreation, not for the use of noisy demagogues who, in these days of cheap journalism and working men's clubs, can find ample opportunity for expressing their opinions elsewhere.
It would not be difficult to cite numerous other instances of neglect or indifference shown in various quarters of this capital respecting nuisances which might easily be repressed by a little firmness of municipal administration. It is strange that more irregularities and rowdyism should exist in Royal England than would be tolerated for a day in Republican France.
In order to disclose and deal effectively with such evils it is evident that the powers of our police force should be extended, or that the maintenance of order and the suppression of irregularities should be delegated to a small but vigilant body of men vested with special authority for that purpose. They might be responsible in each district to a chief inspector who could discharge many of his duties on horseback.
Such an expedient might suffice to ensure adequate supervision and to remove some of the grievances above mentioned. With respect to others in which structural questions are concerned, the problem to be solved assumes, no doubt, a more complex form. Where is the responsibility to lie ? The rights once exercised by the Metropolitan Board of Works have become absorbed in the powers of the County Council, but it is difficult to define their limit or to distinguish between borough administration and parochial rule.
Under ancient Roman law sometimes the AEdile and sometimes the Proctor Urbanus was supreme. But they were both, practically, magistrates, and in our day the functions of a magistrate are devoted to the consideration of moral and personal rather than local wrongs. In London we seem to require the more direct services of a modern 'Curator Viarum.'
CHARLES L. EASTLAKE.
Longman's Magazine, 1 July 1904