Where home is a hovel, and dull we grovel,
Forgetting the world is fair.
There is one beautiful sight in the East End and only one, and it
is the children dancing in the street when the organ-grinder goes
his round. It is fascinating to watch them, the new-born the next
generation, swaying and stepping, with pretty little mimicries and
graceful inventions all their own, with muscles that move swiftly
and easily, and bodies that leap airily, weaving rhythms never taught
in dancing school.
I have talked with these children, here, there, and everywhere,
and they struck me as being bright as other children, and in many
ways even brighter. They have most active little imaginations. Their
capacity for projecting themselves into the realm of romance and
fantasy is remarkable. A joyous life is romping in their blood.
They delight in music, and motion, and color, and very often they
betray a startling beauty of face and form under their filth and
When the Organ-grinder goes his Round.
But there is a Pied Piper of London Town who steals them all away.
They disappear. One never sees them again, or anything that suggests
them. You may look for them in vain amongst the generation of grown-ups.
Here you will find stunted forms, ugly faces, and blunt and stolid
minds. Grace, beauty, imagination, all the resiliency of mind and
muscle, are gone. Sometimes, however, you may see a woman, not necessarily
old, but twisted and deformed out of all womanhood, bloated and
drunken, lift her draggled skirts and execute a few grotesque and
lumbering steps upon the pavement. It is a hint that she was once
one of those children who danced to the organ-grinder. Those grotesque
and lumbering steps are all that is left of the promise of childhood.
In the befogged recesses of her brain has arisen a fleeting memory
that she was once a girl. The crowd closes in. Little girls are
dancing beside her, about her, with all the pretty graces she dimly
recollects, but can no more than parody with her body. Then she
pants for breath, exhausted, and stumbles out through the circle.
But the little girls dance on.
The children of the Ghetto possess all the qualities which make
for noble manhood and womanhood; but the Ghetto itself, like an
infuriated tigress turning on its young, turns upon and destroys
all these qualities, blots out the light and laughter, and moulds
those it does not kill into sodden and forlorn creatures, uncouth,
degraded and wretched below the beasts of the field.
As to the manner in which this is done, I have in previous chapters
described at length; here let Professor Huxley describe in brief:
`Any one who is acquainted with the state of the population of all
great industrial centres, whether in this or other countries, is
aware that amidst a large and increasing body of that population
there reigns supreme . . . that condition which the French call
la misere, a word for which I do not think there is any exact English
equivalent. It is a condition in which the food, warmth, and clothing
which are necessary for the mere maintenance of the functions of
the body in their normal state cannot be obtained; in which men,
women, and children are forced to crowd into dens wherein decency
is abolished, and the most ordinary conditions of healthful existence
are impossible of attainment; in which the pleasures within reach
are reduced to brutality and drunkenness; in which the pains accumulate
at compound interest in the shape of starvation, disease, stunted
development, and moral degradation; in which the prospect of even
steady and honest industry is a life of unsuccessful battling with
hunger, rounded by a pauper's grave.'
In such conditions, the outlook for children is hopeless. They die
like flies, and those that survive, survive because they possess
excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation
with which they are surrounded. They have no home life. In the dens
and lairs in which they live they are exposed to all that is obscene
and indecent. And as their minds are made rotten, so are their bodies
made rotten by bad sanitation, overcrowding, and underfeeding. When
a father and mother live with three or four children in a room where
the children take turn about in sitting up to drive the rats away
from the sleepers, when those children never have enough to eat
and are preyed upon and made miserable and weak by swarming vermin,
the sort of men and women the survivors will make can readily be
Dull despair and misery
Lie about them from their birth;
Ugly curses, uglier mirth,
Are their earliest lullaby.
A man and a woman marry and set up housekeeping in one room. Their
income does not increase with the years, though their family does,
and the man is exceedingly lucky if he can keep his health and his
job. A baby comes, and then another. This means that more room should
be obtained; but these little mouths and bodies mean additional
expense and make it absolutely impossible to get more spacious quarters.
More babies come. There is not room in which to turn around. The
youngsters run the streets, and by the time they are twelve or fourteen
the room-issue comes to a head, and out they go on the streets for
good. The boy, if he be lucky, can manage to make the common lodging-houses,
and he may have any one of several ends. But the girl of fourteen
or fifteen, forced in this manner to leave the one room called home,
and able to earn at the best a paltry five or six shillings per
week, can have but one end. And the bitter end of that one end is
such as that the woman whose body the police found this morning
in a doorway on Dorset Street, Whitechapel. Homeless, shelterless,
sick, with no one with her in her last hour, she had died in the
night of exposure. She was sixty-two years old and a match vender.
She died as a wild animal dies.
Fresh in my mind is the picture of a boy in the dock of an East
End police court. His head was barely visible above the railing.
He was being proved guilty of stealing two shillings from a woman,
which he had spent, not for candy and cakes and a good time, but
`Why didn't you ask the woman for food?' the magistrate demanded,
in a hurt sort of tone. `She would surely have given you something
`If I 'ad arsked 'er, I'd got locked up for beggin',' was the boy's
The magistrate knitted his brows and accepted the rebuke. Nobody
knew the boy, nor his father or mother. He was without beginning
or antecedents, a waif, a stray, a young cub seeking his food in
the jungle of empire, preying upon the weak and being preyed upon
by the strong.
The people who try to help gather up the Ghetto children and send
them away on a day's outing to the country. They believe that not
very many children reach the age of ten without having had at least
one day there. Of this, a writer says: `The mental change caused
by one day so spent must not be undervalued. Whatever the circumstances,
the children learn the meaning of fields and woods, so that descriptions
of country scenery in the books they read, which before conveyed
no impression, become now intelligible.'
One day in the fields and woods, if they are lucky enough to be
picked up by the people who try to help! And they are being born
faster every day than they can be carted off to the fields and woods
for the one day in their lives. One day! In all their lives, one
day! And for the rest of the days, as the boy told a certain bishop,
`At ten we 'ops the wag; at thirteen we nicks things; an' at sixteen
we bashes the copper.' Which is to say, at ten they play truant,
at thirteen steal, and at sixteen are sufficiently developed hooligans
to smash the policemen.
The Rev. J. Cartmel Robinson tells of a boy and girl of his parish,
who set out to walk to the forest. They walked and walked through
the never-ending streets, expecting always to see it by and by;
until they sat down at last, faint and despairing, and were rescued
by a kind woman who brought them back. Evidently they had been overlooked
by the people who try to help.
The same gentleman is authority for the statement that in a street
in Hoxton (a district of the vast East End), over seven hundred
children, between five and thirteen years, live in eighty small
houses. And he adds: `It is because London has largely shut her
children in a maze of streets and houses and robbed them of their
rightful inheritance in sky and field and brook, that they grow
up to be men and women physically unfit.'
He tells of a member of his congregation who let a basement room
to a married couple. `They said they had two children; when they
got possession it turned out that they had four. After a while a
fifth appeared, and the landlord gave them notice to quit. They
paid no attention to it. Then the sanitary inspector, who has to
wink at the law so often, came in and threatened my friend with
legal proceedings. He pleaded that he could not get them out. They
pleaded that nobody would have them with so many children at a rental
within their means, which is one of the commonest complaints of
the poor, by the bye. What was to be done? The landlord was between
two millstones. Finally he applied to the magistrate, who sent up
an officer to inquire into the case. Since that time about twenty
days have elapsed, and nothing has yet been done. Is this a singular
case? By no means; it is quite common.'
Last week the police raided a disorderly house. In one room were
found two young children. They were arrested and charged with being
inmates the same as the women had been. Their father appeared at
the trial. He stated that himself and wife and two older children,
besides the two in the dock, occupied that room; he stated also
that he occupied it because he could get no other room for the half-crown
a week he paid for it. The magistrate discharged the two juvenile
offenders and warned the father that he was bringing his children
But there is need further to multiply instances. In London the slaughter
of the innocents goes on on a scale more stupendous than any before
in the history of the world. And equally stupendous is the callousness
of the people who believe in Christ, acknowledge God, and go to
church regularly on Sunday. For the rest of the week they riot about
on the rents and profits which come to them from the East End stained
with the blood of the children. Also, at times, so peculiarly are
they made, they will take half a million of these rents and profits
and send it away to educate the black boys of the Soudan.
From: Jack London / The People of the Abyss. (1903).
Jack London (1876-1916):
The Minions Of Midas
In a far Country
The Dignity of Dollars
What Life Means to Me
Jack London Ranch Album
The Jack London Collection
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