The Crawlers

Posted: July 31, 2013 in Victorian Life

crawlers

Huddled together on the workhouse steps in Short’s Gardens, those wrecks of humanity, the Crawlers of St. Giles’s, may be seen both day and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their extreme misery. As a rule, they are old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg. They have not the strength to struggle for bread, and prefer starvation to the activity which an ordinary mendicant must display. As a natural consequence, they cannot obtain money for a lodging or for food. What little charity they receive is more frequently derived from the lowest orders. They beg from beggars, and the energetic, prosperous mendicant is in his turn called upon to give to those who are his inferiors in the “profession.” Stale bread, half-used tea-leaves, and on gala days, the fly-blown bone of a joint, are their principal items of diet. A broken jug, or a tea-pot without spout or handle, constitutes the domestic crockery. In this the stale tealeaves, or, perhaps, if one of the company has succeeded in begging a penny, a halfpenny-worth of new tea is carefully placed; then one of the women rises and crawls slowly towards Drury Lane, where there is a coffee-shop keeper and also a publican who take compassion on these women, and supply them gratuitously with boiling water. Warm tea is thus procured at a minimum cost, and the poor women’s lives prolonged. But old age, and want of proper food and rest, reduces them to a lethargic condition which can scarcely be preferable to death itself. It will be noticed that they are constantly dozing, and yet are never really asleep. Some of them are unable to lie down for days. They sit on the hard stone step of the workhouse, their heads reclining on the door, and here by old custom they are left undisturbed. Indeed, the policeman of this beat displays, I am told, much commiseration for these poor refugees, and in no way molests them. When it rains, the door offers a little shelter if the wind is in a favourable direction, but as a rule the women are soon drenched, and consequently experience all the tortures of ague and rheumatism in addition to their other ailments. Under such circumstances sound sleep is an unknown luxury, hence that drowsiness from which they are never thoroughly exempt. This peculiarity has earned them the nick-name of “dosses,” derived from the verb to doze, by which they are sometimes recognized. The crawlers may truly be described as persons who sleep with one eye open. Those who seem in the soundest sleep will look up languidly on the approach of a stranger, as if they were always anticipating interference of some sort.

Some of these crawlers are not, however, so devoid of energy as we might at first be led to infer. A few days’ good lodging and good food might operate a marvellous transformation. The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self- sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident. The crawler, for instance, whose portrait is now before the reader, is the widow of a tailor who died some ten years ago. She had been living with her son-in-law, a marble stone-polisher by trade, who is now in difficulties through ill-health. It appears, however, that, at best, “he never cared much for his work,” and innumerable quarrels ensued between him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, a youth of fifteen. At last, after many years of wrangling, the mother, finding that her presence aggravated her daughter’s troubles, left this uncomfortable home, and with her young son descended penniless into the street. From that day she fell lower and lower, and now takes her seat among the crawlers of the district. Her young son is not only helpless, but troubled with unjustifiable pride. He has pawned his clothes, is covered with rags, but still scorns to sell matches in the street, and is accused of giving himself airs above his station! The woman, though once able to earn money as a tailoress, was obliged to abandon that style of work in consequence of her weak eyesight, and now her great ambition is to “go out scrubbing.” But who will employ even for this menial purpose, a woman who has no home, no address to give, and sleeps on the workhouse steps when she cannot gain admittance into the casual ward? Her son, equally homeless and ragged, cannot, for the same reasons, hope to obtain work; but, on the other hand, I convinced myself after a long conversation, that this woman thoroughly realized her position, and had a very clear idea as to what she should do to redeem herself. She would move heaven and earth to obtain a few shillings, and with these would proceed to the hop-fields, where she would earn enough to save about a pound, and one pound, she urged, would be sufficient to start in life once more. Her son might get his clothes out of pawn, and then obtain work. She would, on her side, rent a little room so as to have an address, and then it would be possible for her to apply for work. Nor was this castle in the air beyond realization. A fellow crawler, who used to doze on the same step leading to St. Giles’s workhouse, had actually obtained employment in a coffee-shop, and, while awaiting an opportunity to follow this example, my informant was taking care of her friend’s child. This infant appears in the photograph, and is entrusted by its mother to the tender mercies of the crawler at about ten o’clock every morning. The mother returns from her work at four in the afternoon, but resumes her occupation at the coffee-shop from eight to ten in the evening, when the infant is once more handed over to the crawler, and kept out in the streets through all weathers with no extra protection against the rain and sleet than the dirty and worn shawl which covers the poor woman’s shoulders; but, as she explained, “it pushes its little head under my chin when it is very cold, and cuddles up to me, so that it keeps me warm as well as itself.” The child, however, cried, and wheezed, and coughed in a manner that did not testify to the success of this expedient; but it was a wonder that, under the conditions, the woman took care of the child at all. The only reward she receives for the eight hours’ nursing per day devoted to this little urchin, is a cup of tea and a little bread. Even this modest remuneration is not always forthcoming, and the crawler has often been compelled to content herself with bread without tea, or tea without bread, so that even this, her principal and often her only meal per day, is not always to be had.

Another well-known crawler had consented to have her portrait taken in company with that of the woman whose circumstances I have already described, but on the previous evening a gentleman gave her sixpence while she was strolling down Albemarle Street. This enabled her to indulge in a night’s lodging, and she was so unaccustomed to the luxury of a bed, that she overslept herself and thus missed the appointment! She is a tall, bony, grey-haired Scotchwoman, and wears a hideous grey waterproof, fastened as tightly round her as is safe, considering the feeble and worn nature of its texture. It is not known that she has any under-clothing. There is only a muddy nondescript substance hanging loosely round the lower part of her legs, which may be freely seen peering from under the skirt of the waterproof, while the upper portion of her feet are covered by soleless goloshes, on the purchase of which she actually laid out the sum of twopence. There was no certain evidence as to her possessing anything else. “Scotty,” as she is called, had recently been condemned to pick oakum for three days in the Marylebone workhouse, as a punishment for having sought refuge in the casual ward three times in the course of one month. To risk what is equivalent to three days’ imprisonment with hard labour, for the sake of spending one night in a casual ward, testifies to a degree of misery and want that beggars all description. But the horror of this picture is intensified when we consider that it is often undeservedly endured. Scotty, for instance, is no criminal, nor is she even a drunkard. No amount of pressure on my part could persuade her to drink even a single glass of beer with the dinner which, of course, I found an early opportunity of giving her. Further, she is neither stupid nor ignorant. She can read and write well, and her language is at times even polished and refined. How, under these circumstances, she could have become a crawler was at first an inexplicable mystery; but gradually I discovered, one by one, the chief incidents in her career, and it all seemed so natural that it was difficult to doubt her word.

“Scotty’s” husband had been employed in a bank at Edinburgh, and, at one time, possessed property to the value of £2000; but this was sold, and the proceeds placed in the hands of some lawyers. I do not know whether Scotty’s husband was also born north of the Tweed, but, in any case, he was not gifted with that spirit of economy, which, when it does not lead to the vice of meanness, is one of the chief characteristic virtues of Scotchmen. At every moment, whenever he experienced the least want of money, he applied to his lawyers, till at last they one day informed him that there was none remaining. His first impression was that he had been egregiously robbed, but he had not kept any account of the sums received, and was therefore quite helpless. The poverty-stricken couple came up to London, and Scotty soon found herself a widow. Alone and friendless, she nevertheless bravely struggled against adversity, and obtained work as a tailoress, but an illness almost deprived her of her eyesight. So long as her eyes remained inflamed she was unable to work, and consequently fell into debt, till at last she was turned out of her room and her things seized and sold. This harshness on the part of her landlord did not, however, crush the poor woman. She had no money to pay a week’s rent in advance so as to obtain a private room, and was therefore compelled to go to a common lodging-house; but she determined to spend the whole of the next day searching for work, and for some more respectable abode. During the night, however, a final catastrophe destroyed all these hopes. A fellow-lodger stole all her clothes.

Protestations and complaints were all in vain, it was impossible to detect the thief and poor Scotty, like Cardinal Wolsey, but in a more literal sense, found herself left naked to her enemies. Her petticoats, under- linen, skirt, apron, boots, all were gone, nothing but her waterproof, which fortunately she had put over her bed, remained. In this plight it was impossible to apply for work; no one was at hand to help or to suggest a remedy, and shiverin~ with cold and almost naked, Scotty went out into the streets which were henceforth to become her only home. Hunger and cold soon reduced her to still deeper gloom and helplessness, till, at last, she gladly availed herself of the meagre shelter available on the workhouse steps. At times the stupor that this intense suffering begets, obtains such complete sway over her mind and body that she is unable to stand or walk, and she has often fallen from sheer exhaustion. “But,” added Scotty, “I am becoming more accustomed to it now; I have not fallen once the whole of this week. What, however, I cannot endure, is the awful lazy, idle life I am forced to lead; it is a thousand times worse than the hardest labour, and I would much rather my hands were cut, blistered, and sore with toil, than, as you see them, swollen, and red, and smarting from the exposure to the sun, the rain, and the cold.”

Gradually she seemed to recover her old energy. If she could only obtain a decent set of clothes, she would seek employment at the army stores in Pimlico, where she had worked in her more prosperous days. Here she could earn seven shillings a week. An old woman whom she had met in a mission hall had offered to share her room, a back kitchen, with her for eighteenpence a week. Scotty had been obliged to refuse this offer, as she had no earthly prospect of being able to pay even the eighteenpence; but, if ever she got to work again, this was the style of arrangement she would make. Then she would spend four shillings a week on her food, which she declared would be ample, particularly as she knew where to get excellent porridge! There would, therefore, remain out of seven shillings per week about eighteenpence for clothes, &c. Such was the ambition of this poor woman, and yet, for want of the slight assistance necessary to attain this modest end, she had been compelled to live the life of a crawler for nearly two months. Imbued with a pride that does honour to her nationality, Scotty has stubbornly rejected all suggestions as to her entering the workhouse, and does not, I believe, condescend to beg. Sometimes persons take compassion on her, and seeing her forlorn appearance, give her a few pence; but, had it been her practice to beg, she would never have endured all the misery I have but feebly described. Perhaps, however, with the help that will now be forthcoming, Scotty may once more resume work and leave the “dossing door.”

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