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Good Words 1860
The Evils of Great Cities, and Some Recent Remedies


Man was once a bird, and he is now an insect. In the early, free, nomadic days, while as yet cities were not, he roamed at will over the world; civilisation has clipped his wings. The nineteenth-century man burrows in crowded homes, and crawls through narrow streets.

Whether this constant "congestion to the metropolis," so characteristic of our modern times, is an inevitable accompaniment of civilisation, and whether the advantages gained by it overbalance the evils which it certainly occasions, we need not too carefully inquire. Much might, probably, be said on both sides—as the kindly knight of Queen Anne's reign loved to remark, with the leisurely good nature that belonged to his age. It does certainly seem as if our countrymen generally, until the last few years, had been forgetting the one half of the great primal command, to "multiply and replenish the earth." They have multiplied, in millions, but they did not even think of replenishing the earth, whose huge continents stretch around us, with fat harvests sleeping in their unwrought and unbroken soils. The waste lands far away have been crying out for the advent of their long-expected master, "to till the earth and subdue it;" and meanwhile, whole generations have, in our own country, been crowding into existence, and fighting for room to live in their narrow natal spot. The truths which Malthus pointed out fifty years ago, as to the inevitable tendency of population to outgrow the means of subsistence, should have had a more important practical result than a barren and useless controversy as to whether men should, in these days, continue to obey the fundamental laws of their nature. Men had split up God's commandment, and had forgot to replenish the earth; and finding, as they generally find, that such a proceeding did not work well, and that the truncated ordinance of their Creator avenged itself upon them in famine and penury, they took counsel of the philosophers. The philosophers, having ripely and well considered the matter, and judging truly that vast mischiefs were sure to arise from the continuance of the present state of things, advised mankind, not to obey the whole command, but rather to leave off complying with that other portion of it which they had hitherto obeyed. So that great and good man, Dr Chalmers, writes a book of Political Economy, in which he eloquently urges the raising of the moral character of the people, and the disseminating of the truths of the gospel, as a means—to what?—to diminishing reckless marriages, and improvident increase of the population. So Mr John Stuart Mill, in his late work on " Liberty," makes it one of the few exceptions to toleration for which he is willing to find room, that penal or repressive measures may be used to prevent rash men burdening the country with too many hungry mouths. The precepts of the philosophers have turned out to be futile; and it might have been foreseen that they would. The Creator has too well "laid the deep foundations" of the social system in the complex nature of man, to allow of its being appreciably affected by the apparent demonstrations of prudential calculators. The true remedy for over-population was too obvious for wise men to look at; but it has forced itself upon the attention of all. Emigration is the great national fact and social blessing of our day. The wastes of the world are being occupied. The surplus of our home population flows continually away. The choking reservoirs of civilisation are broken up, and humanity flows down to find its natural level over innumerable plains. Our country has already felt the benefit largely. Men stand more in open rank; there is more leisure for the brain to work, and more room for the heart to play.

Yet the poor shall never cease out of the land ! The curse of labour yet remains, and in an old country it assumes various peculiarities of aggravation ; and along with it comes that greater curse, of want of labour, and of want of courage and of will to accept the labour when it is offered. Emigration cannot do everything, and it seems powerless to meet the modern tendency of men to mass themselves together into overgrown towns. There is still too great a crowd of men in our land; but in the large cities there is a frightful crush. The congestion of the country has been partially met: the congestion of the city remains in all its aggravation, and will remain, at least during our age and generation. We may hold that it is an unwise and unnatural centralisation, and that men are bound to follow the example of the first family from which they spring, and flow outwards in all directions, instead of strangling each other in these jungles of close and crowded life. All this may be, but the fact remains the same. The causes which influence the enormous and apoplectic growth of large cities, are too secret for us to unravel, and too powerful for us to meet. We must accept cities and city life as a fact—the great and momentous, if we may not even say appalling fact, of our age.

The colossal work of Mr Mayhew, on "London Labour and the London Poor," will remain a wonderful monument of the dark side of the nineteenth century, in the biggest town of the world.

"How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
How complicate, how wonderful,"

is London! But the same feeling of the immense needs, and sorrows, and sins of "that great city," comes back upon us with perhaps as much force, though indirectly, when we are contemplating the remedial measures that have been tried. The light falling here and there makes the mass of darkness visible. There are no less than five hundred and thirty charitable societies in London alone, and nearly 2,000,000 of money is annually spent by them: while some persons have attempted to calculate the amount of alms bestowed altogether as not less than 3,500,000 annually. Year by year, the gulf steadily sucks into it these enormous sums, yet, like Bun-yan's Slough of Despond, it appears not much better. A very fair index of the amount of poverty in the whole mass may be found in the statistics of the Refuges for the houseless, which meet the wretched at the lowest and last point of destitution, and catch them as they are just slipping over the verge of ruin, In the Field-Lane Refuge alone, during the year before last, upwards of twelve thousand persons received shelter and relief, not a few of whom were thus saved from death by mere starvation. Since the opening of the Asylum in Playhouse Yard, in 1820, one hundred and fifty thousand men, women, and children, have been received within its walls. Nor are these results so strange when we consider, that besides the hundreds who are daily drifting into homelessness, there are no fewer than fifty thousand whose homes are in the streets — the nomadic race of London, "distinguished, like all other nomads," as their historian, Mr Mayhew, informs us, "for their high cheek-bones and protruding jaws, for their use of a slang language, for their lax ideas of property, for their general improvidence, their repugnance to continuous labour, their disregard of female honour, their love of cruelty, their pugnacity, and their utter want of religion." It is one of the chief recommendations of these Refuges, as they are conducted in London, that besides saving many nightly from starvation, they seem often to inspire in the minds of those whom they temporarily receive, the courage to " breast the blows of circumstance," and try the fate of life once more. During twelve months in the recent history of one of the institutions above mentioned, no fewer than twelve hundred of those received into it from street life,—that is, from extreme poverty and profligate vagabondism,—were placed in positions of independence, and enabled to work and live by their work. But a source which fills such institutions with still more painful cases of destitution, is that standing evil of underpaid solitary labour, especially of slop-workers and needle-women. Political economy, indeed, tells us that this is an evil which no partial or eleemosynary efforts can ever meet, and it doubtless demands both preventive and remedial measures. Neither of them will do alone. " Emigration " and " employment of women" must occupy the attention of thinkers and of statesmen; for thus alone can we hope to see the bitter waters gradually drained away. But, meanwhile, while they are laying their plans, human bodies and souls are perishing, and the grinding wheels move on relentlessly. The evil is so great as to call for more immediate remedies than the doctrines of free trade embrace, lest the modern, like the mystic Babylon, be judged as trading in all kinds of merchandise, " and souls of men." At a meeting held in London some years ago, about a thousand female slop-workers attended, and of these 5 only had earned above 6s. a-week; 28 had earned 5s.; 13, 4s. 6d.; 142, 3s.; 150, 2s. 6d.; 71, 2s.; 82, 1s. 6d.; 98, only 1s. a-week! Eighty-eight of these last stated they were entirely dependent on their own exertions for support; 92 had earned under 1s.; and 223 had no work at all during the whole of the week ! Facts like these, while they would almost sanction any legislative interference, to secure a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, (provided only that a means could be found by which such interference should not become nugatory,) call at least unmistakeably for individual and collective benevolence.

Another well-tried and fully-proved institution in our large towns is that of the City Missionary, and in the clear and most interesting narrative entitled "The Missing Link," we have an important modification of this proposed, which certainly seems to have been surprisingly successful, so far as it has been tried. It is urged, in the first place, that the agency employed for such work should be women. "The woman is appointed for the physical civilisation of communities," and the moral amelioration is most hopeful which is received in connexion with help and teaching as to the things of this world. But the female agency which has been found most valuable is that of reliable Christian women drawn from the same class of society as those among whom they labour; and various good reasons are assigned for this. This "native female agency" of ble-women, who have a knowledge of the necessities of those among whom they labour, has already proved itself to be acceptable to the poor. Working-men do not complain of them in the grumbling tone which they are apt to assume towards City Missionaries and Scripture-readers, who come about their houses. "They have always met with a genuine welcome from the Lower House of Lords, who know that their wives want teaching in the common arts of life, and that even their own comfort depends upon the lesson being learned." "She may point them to their forgotten duties, or to acts which they never saw to be duties—may shew them how their children look when they are clean; may teach them the use of soap; instruct them in the preparation of food; get their windows opened, and their floors purified; teach them the comfort of clean linen and clean beds; and bring them eventually, 'clothed and in their right mind,' to sit at the feet of all and any who may be in any degree the 'ministers of Christ.'" About the best example of what a fraternal pen calls this " gospel of the scrubbing-brush," this " evangel of saucepans, and fresh clean beds, and tidy gowns, which tends onwards to the washing of the soul in the laver of regeneration," is to be found in Mrs Bayly's little book on "Ragged Homes, and How to Mend them;" and the same sort of results which are there recorded as having sprung from the exertions of one lady, have been multiplied wonderfully by the wisely-chosen and well-worked agency the operations of which "The Missing Link " professes to record. We must agree with the able and excellent authoress of this work, "that it certainly seems that a native female agency, drawn from the classes we want to serve and instruct, has hitherto been a missing link, and that such a supplementary work might now perfect the heavenly chain which shall lift the lost and reckless from the depths of their despair."

Yet, after we have read the book, the conviction recurs that, while the plan is good, and it is surprising it has not been tried before, it will still be dependent for its efficiency on having the right sort of people to work it—episcopai like L. N. R., and agents like "Marian." "The spirit of the living creature must be in the wheels." Without zeal and love, fed and sustained from an adequate Source, this, and all other links, by which we attempt to bind together the framework of society, will form but a rope of sand.

"The Missing Link" is a hopeful and practical book; yet it is affecting to trace the dark shadows that lie upon the page. One woman said to the "Bible-woman," "I tell you what it is: poverty is a curse—a curse. It works all the good qualities out of you, and you ponder, ponder; it takes all your thoughts to know how you are to get bread." An old man, who was the fellow-lodger of one of the female agents when she was a little girl, and who was kind-hearted, though an atheist, had taught her to read a little, but bade her never read the Bible— "it was full of lies: she had only to look round her in St Giles's, and she might see that there was no God!" And even for those who reject the lying lesson, and know that the darkness is but the shadow of His holiness falling upon a sinful race, it is sad to watch the double gloom resting upon young lives, where "the children of six years old look like fifty, with their hunger-bitten faces—they are not at play —they sit gazing out of the dark courts; and boys of twelve, smoking short pipes, lie outside the doors." Many of the incidents remind us forcibly of the thrilling narratives of Mr Vanderkiste, in his "Dens of London;" a strong expression, but not too strong for scenes such as that where he found a poor girl, seized with malignant typhus fever, who "was but seventeen years of age when I found her in this miserable abode, and during the delirium of fever she would alternately sing hymns and utter pious expressions—the sunshine of her life was then passing before her; afterwards in her delirium came the storm of her life—abominable songs, wretched expressions, the thunder and lightning of wickedness, such as she had sung and uttered in her darkness." Narratives such as these are not written for those of whose case they treat. They are written for those whose dwellings are fixed in providence on the sunnier slope of life; who have round them a sufficiency of temporal, and an affluence of spiritual blessings. They who have got the birthright, and the mess of pottage too, are surely bound, before all others, to hear that "exceeding loud and bitter cry" that rises from the waste places of the earth, "Bless us, even us also, O our Father!"


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