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Is it not Time?

W.T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, October 16, 1883)

The "Bitter Cry of Outcast London" is the striking title of a small pamphlet the contents of which we condense in another page. If this were the first time that this wail of hopeless misery had sounded on our ears the matter would have been less serious. It is because we have heard it so often that the case is so desperate.

The exceeding bitter cry of the disinherited has come to be as familiar in the ears of men as the dull roar of the streets or as the moaning of the wind through the trees. And so it rises unceasing, year in and year out, and we are too busy or too idle, too indifferent or too selfish to spare it a thought. Only now and then, on rare occasions such as the present, when some clear voice is heard giving more articulate utterance to the miseries of miserable men, do we pause in the regular routine of our daily duties and shudder as we realise for one brief moment what life means to the inmates of the slums. But one of the grimmest social problems of our time should be sternly faced, not with a view to the generation of profitless emotion, but with a view to its solution.

Is it not time? There is, it is true, an audacity in the mere suggestion that the problem is not insoluble that is enough to take away the breath. But can nothing be done to abate the horrors of the slums? If, after full and exhaustive consideration, we come to the deliberate conclusion that nothing can be done, and that it is the inevitable and inexorable destiny of thousands of Englishmen to be brutalized into worse than beasts by the conditions of their environment: so be it. But if, on the contrary, we are unable to believe that this "awful slough" which engulfs the manhood and womanhood of generation after generation is incapable of removal; and if the heart and intellect of mankind alike revolt against the fatalism of despair, then indeed it is time and high time that the question of the homes of the poor is faced in no mere dilettante spirit, but with a resolute determination to make an end of the crying scandal of our age. It is true that that is much easier said than done. But at present who can even be got to say it, much less to set about the doing of it? Yet it is the one great domestic problem which the religion, the humanity, and the statesmanship of England are imperatively summoned to solve.

What the evil is every one knows. It is the excessive overcrowding of enormous multitudes of the very poor in pestilential rookeries where it is a matter of physical impossibility to live a human life. Men, women, and children are herded together in filthy styes; there is a family in every room; morality is impossible, and indeed has ceased to exist; and in these reeking tenements are bred the stunted, squalid savages of civilization. The tentative attempts hitherto made to deal with this foul ulcer of London have only intensified the evil. Some rookeries have been pulled down, but those that are left are more crowded than ever. The new dwellings are filled with a better class, and, as the author of the pamphlet remarks, "The outcasts are driven to huddle more closely together in the few loathsome places still left to them." These fever dens are said to be the best-paying property in London, and owners who, if justice were done, would be on the treadmill, are drawing from 50 to 60 per cent. on investments in tenement property in the slums. "Entire courts are filled with thieves, prostitutes, and liberated convicts. In one street are thirty-five houses, thirty-two of which are known to be houses of ill-fame. In another district are forty-three of these houses and 428 fallen women and girls, many of them not more than twelve years of age."

The grim Florentine might have added to the horrors of his vision of hell by a sojourn in a London slum. For in his Inferno the damned at least did not breed. With us they do. Every year sees an addition to the long roll of the new born lost. Born in the fetid atmosphere of a crowded cellar, suckled on gin, and cradled in the gutter, they never have a chance. When they are five or six they are driven into the public school to infect it with the moral miasma of their lairs. Many are lucky enough to die, others live on, in turn to propagate their kind, and to hand down to another generation the curse which never leaves them from the cradle to the grave. All this seething mass of misery and vice exists at our doors. It is getting no better, it is rather getting worse. Is anything to be done?

What a satire it is upon our Christianity and our civilization, that the existence of these colonies of heathens and savages in the heart of our capital should attract so little attention. It is no better than a ghastly mockery - theologians might use a stronger word - to call by the name of One who came to seek and to save that which was lost those churches which in the midst of lost multitudes either slumber in apathy or display a fitful interest in a chasuble. Why all this apparatus of temples and meeting-houses to save men from perdition in the world which is to come, while never a helping hand is stretched out to save them from the Inferno of their present life. Is it not time that the churches, forgetting for a moment their wranglings about the infinitely little or infinitely obscure, should concentrate all their energies on a united effort to break this terrible perpetuity of perdition, and to rescue some at least of those for whom they profess to believe their Founder came to die?

It is unfair to lay all the blame on the churches. They have failed, it is true. No one goes to church or chapel in the slums. Whole streets full of people live and die without ever having entered a place of worship. But it is unjust to ignore the fact that most of those who have flung themselves bravely into this Malebolgic pool of London's misery are inspired by the sacred compassion which has ever been one of the most potent influences of the Christian Church. And outside the Churches there are sufficient men, and more than sufficient means, to solve this problem. Here, if anywhere, is a question demanding the most anxious consideration - a huge cancer eating into the very heart of the realm - and yet, with a few notable exceptions, who spares it a thought? Those who have no concern about another life have all their energies at command for the amelioration of this - but what is being done? What rich man except the American Peabody leaves his fortune to rehouse the poor? How many thinkers dedicate themselves to an exhaustive study of the method of ameliorating the condition of the homeless? Where is the leader of men who will preach a new crusade against the crying evil of our times? As for the politicians, they make no sign. We do not suggest that the housing of the poor should be made a party question, but is it not time that all those who are really concerned about the welfare of their fellows should attempt at least to bring the subject to the front? If the few - and there are several - who have bestowed long and anxious thought upon this question were to lay their matured convictions before the public, who knows but that at last some clear, practical agreement might be reached which, when once plainly set before the nation, might result in united and energetic action for the abatement of this great evil? Even if it should not be successful, is it not high time to make the attempt?

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