How the Poor Live by George Sims
During the Victorian period many journalists began their social investigation into how the poor lived. While these investigations were taking place it was Henry Mayhew who invented the word interview. Many followed in Mayhew’s foot steps by allowing people to speak for themselves. It became increasingly fashionable to join the crusade band wagon armed with their pens and paper with which to influence the growing unease regarding the uneven distribution of the nation’s wealth. The personal accounts of abject poverty are extremely harrowing, during their interviews some close to destitution and fearing the work house broke down in tears. But these interviews continued relentlessly to bring home their painful massage of door step depravity. William C Preston, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, published in 1883. Its content was carefully crafted to have maximum impact of the minds of its readers. “Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of a slave ship.” Living in that restricted environment caused extreme hardship for human beings who were forced to endure the humiliation of living the lives of caged animals. Although we are all part of the depersonalised mass floating like drift wood towards the jaws of hell, how many times did these words pass through the lips of those who were responsible for this human outcry ? I don’t know how people can live like that, I know I certainly couldn’t. From Preston’s twenty paged pamphlet there are enough tears of pain and horror to fill an Olympic sized swimming-pool.
Journalists were painfully aware of the gulf between rich and poor, because they knew that the property owners were slave-traders who together with the church were charging exorbitant rents for their dilapidated housing stock. What was needed was someone with a greater understanding of how the poor lived, but moreover, someone with remedial thinking who was capable of standing back and putting the story into perspective. Door step depravity is where George R Sims’ story begins by introducing his audience to their naivety, by taking them on a far-away journey only to bring them back to Hitting Home Hard. Sims’ method of conveyance had greater transparency to the opening eyes that had been shrouded in the murky waters of social taboos, unbelievable filth and squalor in which the nation had wallowed in for centuries. After his travels through the London slums gathering information about the filthy people who lived in hovels condemned as unfit for human habitation, there was no greater depth which could be exposed. Retention of the dead brought about by the lack of finance was one of those taboos the better off didn’t want to read about. However, the full horror of how the poor lived had been investigated, and it was with the power of the pen that he put his message across. It was with an ironic sense of humour his sentence began, “Fifteen days! Fancy that! With the knowledge you have by this time – of the size and condition of the room in which the corpse remained mixed up with the living inmates day and night. – Note the fact that in the first child died of scarlet fever, and that tailoring work is going on a round it – work which when finished will be carried, in all human probability, with the germs of disease in to the homes of the well-to-do and prosperous people – a class which too frequently objects to be worried with the revelations of the misery of the masses.”
It was this experience of social injustice that door step depravity became an ever pressing problem which must have left him alone for many months trying to make sense of this melee of miseries. The hospital is what most people think of as sanctuary but this is where his concern for children became heart-breaking , the sentiment of which was shared by hundreds of parents. For the first time in their impoverished lives these children had been well nourished and had slept in a warm comfortable bed with clean linen. Sims felt very strongly on this subject and that is why he wrote with such compassion. “It would be better in dozens of cases that the children were left to die now, while they are young and innocent than that death should be wrestled with and its prize torn from it only to be cast back into a state of existence which is worse than death. The children have some inking of this themselves. Many of them cry when they are well, and cling to the kind nurses, asking piteously not to be sent back to the squalor and dirt, and often alas! Cruelty, from which they have been snatched for a brief spell.” His compassion for social justice gave him an overwhelming sense of responsibility, which in turn led him with other journalists to influence those who had the power to bring about change. From this mire and looking forward into the future the up hill struggle had begun, a dream of a fresh new environment had been realised, but this could only be achieved by educating the younger generation. On his journey he was joined by the artist Mr. Frederick Barnard whose company he very much enjoyed. It was this relationship that inspired Sims to merge his craft of writing poetry with the paint brush. “But in the slums he can see but one colour; all is monotone – a sombre grey sky deepening into the blackness of the night. Even the blue that in the far-off skies seems to defy the man-made town to be utterly colourless, is obscured by the smoke belched forth from a hundred chimney pots.” No matter how bleak the picture of poverty becomes people have to get on with their lives, and this is how the poor once lived enhanced with black and white sketches.
Ref: Reprint. George Sims How the Poor Live. (Lightening Source.UK.Ltd. 2010.)