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Friday, 11 March 2011

“Here they find helping hands” Or: The Victorian House of Charity

A couple of weeks ago the news was reporting that Westminster Council wanted to close soup kitchens to stop the homeless gathering there and, in effect, making the place look messy.

This story put me in mind of a few pieces of Victorian Journalism I have read on the subject of the homeless – there are many out there – and I had a look through my little collection and found this 1870 piece, ‘The Terrible Sights of London and Labours of Love in the Midst of Them’ by Thomas Archer.

Whilst many aspects of our society have made huge advancements since the late Victorian age, doesn’t the establishment described below, written in a time when the poor were supposedly forgotten about and ignored, put suggestions and councils like Westminster to shame?

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, then here is a link to it.

The House of Charity
Is surely so named in the scriptural sense of that last word in its title; for there is no reminder there that its inmates are to forfeit their claim to respect in return for alms. Plain in its simple comfort, and with a quiet order in its family arrangements that must make it a blessed retreat for the sorrowful, a calm resting-place for the harassed, it is all that its name implies, and more; for it belongs not only to the charity that giveth of its goods to feed the poor, but to that which 'thinketh no evil.'

It is a fine old house, standing at No. 1 Greek-street, Soho, and has certain historical associations belonging to it; for it was the town mansion of the celebrated Alderman Beckford, and still exhibits some of the decorations of ceiling and chimneypiece, and the breadth and ample space of staircase and passage, which distinguished the buildings of that time. By the way, it is interesting to know that the carved mantel and its supports, formerly belonging to the apartment that is now the committee room, were so fine an example of decorative art, that the promoters of the present charity obtained a handsome sum for them when they were sold for the benefit of the good work undertaken there. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the patron of this institution.

In the lower part of the house there are two large rooms on opposite sides of the hall, well warmed and lighted, and used as sitting-rooms, one for male, the other for female inmates.
They are supplied with books and newspapers; the latter in order that those in search of situations may see the advertisements; while the women are partially employed in making or mending their clothes, or in such needlework as may be given to .the three or four more permanent residents. The large room used as a refectory is plainly furnished, the men sitting at one table, the women at another; and the quantity and description of the food is such as would be provided in a respectable family; tea or coffee, and good bread-and-butter, morning and evening; meat and vegetables for dinner; and a supper of bread and cheese. There is no limit as to quantity; and if one could forget the distress which brings them thither, one might regard the family as employés of some well-ordered establishment, with good plain meals, and a clubroom on each side for meeting in after business-hours.

The dormitories, which occupy the upper floors of the two wings, are admirably contrived to secure that privacy the want of which would be so repulsive a feature to persons of superior condition. Each long and lofty room is divided into a series of enclosures, or cabins, by substantial partitions of about eight feet in height; and in each of these separate rooms, all of which are lighted from several windows, or by the gas-branches in the main apartment, there is a neat comfortable bed and bedstead, with space for a seat or a box, and a small table or shelf.

Between thirty and forty persons can be received here at one time; and those who are in search of employment, or who require to go out during the day, leave after breakfast, and return either to dinner or to tea. For a fortnight, or in many exceptional cases for a more extended time, the House of Charity becomes the home of those who, but for its aid, must apparently sink lower and lower, till they become not only utterly destitute, but in danger of being deeply degraded and even vicious. Here they find helping hands and judicious advice, as well as ready sympathy, and numbers of them are directed to situations; while the sick are placed in hospitals, or allowed to remain in the home, and attend as out-patients until admission can be found for them.

The poor women especially – many of whom are ladies by previous position and education – find it a refuge indeed, and learn that the sister who has charge of the whole household arrangements, as well as those who have more definite duties in relation to the female inmates themselves, and the rather arduous correspondence, accounts, and inquiries, may be appealed to with an assurance of hearty sympathy.
On part of the open area at the back of the building a chapel has recently been erected, where the warden himself officiates at morning and evening prayer; and it may well be believed that to many of those weary souls this sacred spot, with its pretty cathedral-like ornaments, its stained glass, and the suggestion of quiet and repose in its subdued light, may represent the retracement of the steps that have ended so disastrously, and yet so blessedly; and· may, in some sense, be associated with that outcome into renewed life for which their presence in the institution gives them reason to hope.

Standing within this building, however, I notice certain small blank unfinished spaces on the walls, and amidst the general appearance of completeness, an incompleteness not obvious at the first glance. I am pleased to learn, in explanation of this, that only the special contributions to the chapel fund are spent here, and that no more is done at the time than there is money to pay for; so that for the actual completion of details, and the addition (greatly needed) of a covered way from the house to the church-porch, funds are patiently awaited.

When I speak of the necessity for a covered way, it reminds me that many of the inmates come here sick as well as sad. To-night, in a warm and comfortable workroom near the dormitory – a room that is used, I think, as a kind of day-nursery for such children as are admitted – there are two young women sewing at a table, where they have just been supplied with tea and  bread and butter.
One of them is suffering from a consumptive cough; the other is an out-patient at a hospital for disease of the hip, and has to wear an instrument until she can be admitted as a regular case. It may be mentioned that the expenditure is frequently increased because of the infirm condition of many of the female inmates, who not only require more comforts and special food, but whose inability to do the work of the house entails the necessity of employing paid substitutes.
This fact accounts for a large number of cases sent to hospitals and convalescent homes. Clothing is also an item of expense; and the committee very earnestly appeals for gifts of apparel, either new or old, since without such aid many of the inmates cannot procure situations.

Would you know who these inmates are? The case-book would reveal a series of affecting stories; for in it are the plain statements – needing no touches of art to make them painfully interesting – of ladies, wives of professional men, brought .to sudden widowhood and poverty; of men of education cast adrift by failure or sickness, and not knowing where to seek their bread; of children left destitute or deserted; of women removed from persecution, and girls from the tainted atmosphere of vice; of weary wanderers, who, in despair of finding such a shelter, have spent nights in the parks; of foreigners stranded on the shore of a strange city; of ministers of the Gospel brought low; of servant-girls defrauded of their wages, or discharged almost penniless, and cast loose in the giddy whirl of London streets.

It is not alone for its temporary aid in affording a home that this most admirable House of Charity is distinguished; but it affords a good hope also by seeking situations in cases where peculiar circumstances make such a search difficult – for bereaved and impoverished ladies, for educated men, as well as for domestic and superior servants. Its supporters give this aid also to the work; and as they number amongst them many ladies and gentlemen of social influence, employment is frequently discovered for those whose misfortunes would otherwise be almost irretrievable.

Of 225 men, 351 women, and 79 children who came before the warden and council, and were admitted during the last official year:
243 were provided for more or less permanently;
110 were sent to homes, orphanages, and hospitals;
83 returned to their homes;
18 were passing on to homes or places of service, and stayed here on their way;
12 were emigrants waiting for their ships to sail;
80 left because of the expiration of the time allowed for their remaining;
13 left of their own accord;
And 21 were dismissed.
In the record of the social condition of the inmates, we find 17 tutors, schoolmasters, and teachers; 18 governesses and schoolmistresses; 47 clerks, shopmen, and travellers; 47 menservants, porters, and pages; 5 engineers; 2 engravers; 1 officer; 7 soldiers; 3 sailors; 7 surgeons, apothecaries, and chemists; and most of the rest representing a large number of respectable trades - including 1 'planter' – and some situations, the, most remarkable of which was that of 'master of a workhouse.' Of matrons, housekeepers, and nurses, there were 61; of maids-of- all-work, 86; and of other servant-maids, 113; while of needlewomen there were 20.

Of course the daily provision for the family of about thirty is considerable, and the kitchen is in almost constant use, while the laundry is scarcely sufficient for the needs of the establishment; but this regular succession of meals by no means represents the culinary operations of that glorious house. For there is a 'sick-kitchen' to look after; that is to say, a kitchen adjoining the regular kitchen of the establishment, to which poor applicants from the neighbouring district bring their cloths and basins, and carry away nourishing food to their poorer invalids.
At this very moment the soup for tomorrow's supply – rich in the aroma of meat and savoury vegetables – is concocting in a huge copper, from which the sister-superintendent will deftly ladle it into basins or jugs, and pass it to anxious recipients waiting at the wicket by the window.

And this is not all either, for 300 of the sick and hungry little ones of Soho sit down twice a week to a sick children's dinner table in the schoolroom of St. Mary, of which our warden is the vicar; and the caldrons of stew, as well as the great pots full of mealy potatoes, are all set boiling here at the grand old mansion in Greek-street.

The greater part, if not the entire cost, of these dinners is defrayed by the contributions of children who are better off in the world; and send their savings, or a percentage of them – pence, fourpennypieces, sixpences, and shillings – to be devoted to this purpose. Indeed, a special appeal is made to the children of well-doing parents.

While I am on this subject, I cannot refrain from mentioning in parenthesis that the committee of that admirable association, the Destitute Children's Dinners Society, in their third report, state that during the year ending September 30th, 1869, forty dining-rooms were opened in forty of the most impoverished localities of the metropolis; and 110,803 dinners supplied to the ragged and destitute children attending schools in their respective neighbourhoods.

Among those who receive the benefits of the institution in Greek-street, the large number of domestic servants represent a class to whom such a refuge is most acceptable and most necessary. It would be well, indeed, if there were other houses of charity for temporarily destitute or distressed persons of the better class; and it would be well also if a larger number of institutions were established for the reception of female servants looking for a situation, or temporarily unemployed through sickness. There are several now in operation under the direction of the Female Servants' Home Society, the office of which is at 85 Queen-street, Cheapside. There is another at 132 Walworth-road, forming one of the operations of the South-London Mission; and there is the Trewint Industrial Home in Mare-street, Hackney, where thirty girls over fifteen years of age are restrained from vice, to which they had been exposed by being without situations.

It is the comparatively helpless position of the female servant out of place, and cast loose to find a home for herself, which gives these special institutions such a claim. To what kind of home is a young woman ignorant of London and its ways – or if not entirely ignorant, with a flighty hankering after a little liberty, but with no present intention of improper companionship – likely to be introduced? Say that she takes lodging with the charwoman, or rents a room with another girl of her own class, what is likely to come of it when her remnant of wages is nearly exhausted?

Should she be of attractive appearance she is in danger of temptation every time she goes out after dark, and probably even in broad daylight; for the harpies who waylay her, know how to flatter her vanity or to work upon her fears for their own purpose. While should she come to the end of her money, and even have begun to part with a portion of her clothes and her poor little bits of finery, to pay for a lodging and a meal, her ruin probably is imminent. 

Among the multitude of lost and wretched women who throng our streets, and make (next to its deserted and destitute children) London's most terrible sight, the ranks that represent domestic servants brought to the deepest degradation of vice and misery are by far the fullest.

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