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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter II. Starving in Silence


It is the impudent beggar who hustles to the front, and carries off the lion’s share of Charity doles. He never starves. He is too cute ever to fall into such dire extremity. If the calamity he dreads most of all comes upon him, and he is actually compelled to exert himself to keep body and soul together, he knows how to do so with the minimum of trouble and the maximum of profit to himself. With all the outs and ins of the “moucher’s” life he is familiar, and he is unconcerned; for he is assured that in this city of many charities his wants will not go long unrelieved. Assistance can be got for the asking: why, therefore, should he so far forget himself as to render unnecessary the offices of the good Samaritans?

It is needless to say that this rascal does not belong to the silent, suffering class. At all points he is dissimilar to him who is known as the “deserving” poor man. The latter is honest and clings to his independence. He is probably a labourer or in one of the lower grades of artisans. But, notwithstanding all his endeavours, the nature of his calling is such that he for ever lives on the borderland of destitution. His wages are so small and his family so large that it is only by severe pinching that both ends are able to meet. There is nothing laid by for any day; and when a temporary slackness of trade throws him out of employment, he and his family at once begin to feel the grip of poverty.

Such a man is very often quite ignorant of the ways of obtaining charitable aid. So long as he is able-bodied the Parochial Board will not give him outdoor relief, and lie has a horror of “the House.” There is thus nothing between him and slow starvation; and he drags through weeks in silent hunger, parting with his furniture bit by bit, until the tide of fortune turns, and he once again finds work to support himself and his family. And in this manner he passes his life, in continual oscillation between bare sufficiency and sheer starvation.

Winter is the time dreaded most by these hard-tried creatures, for then outdoor work is uncertain. Should a slackness in trade be added to inclement weather, then their lot is pitiable in the extreme. During the recent railway strike, for instance, the sufferings of the labouring classes were intense. It was not the railway men who suffered; it was those who had been employed in works dependent on the railway for supplies. Their name was legion. In the course of the strike we personally discovered scores of families rendered utterly destitute by this means. One case we shall describe as a typical one.

In a wretched hovel, a mere corner of a room, we came upon a young man, with his wife and two infants. Their appearance and scant surroundings indicated only too clearly abject poverty. When we entered, the man was in bed; on the coverlet sat one of the children crying in a faint, weary voice; and the woman, pale, thin, and wan, sat over the tireless hearth, “crooning” the other infant to sleep. The scene was one of dull, settled despair. This desolation notwithstanding, the faces and the bearing of the young couple bore the unmistakable stamp of respectability. They were not of the coarse, brutal mould in which their squalid neighbours were cast; and, unlike them, they were not ready to pour forth the tale of their sufferings. But questioning brought out a pitiable tale.

Till the time of the strike they hail lived in a small but comfortable house of two rooms in a comparatively respectable locality. But the strike threw the man idle, and in a little more than a week they were forced to leave their house and to take refuge in the miserable den we found them in. There, to add to their misfortunes, the man was seized with rheumatism and had to take to bed. The young woman, unacquainted with the method of obtaining parochial relief, and apparently loth to avail herself of such assistance, sold the furniture bit by bit until the barest necessaries only were left. Then they began to experience absolute starvation. It was a Thursday night when we saw them, and the father and mother had not tasted any food since the Wednesday morning except a half-penny bran scone; while a single biscuit between them was all the nourishment that the children had got. Certainly the haggard, hunger-bitten appearance of the family bore out the truth of the statement. During the preceding fortnight not a soul had entered the door, saving a well-intentioned elderly lady, who had called one Sunday and left a religious tract—not a very satisfying allowance among four starving mortals.

This was a case of starving respectability. But when starvation is found hand in hand with filth and rags, the effect produced upon the observer is almost staggering.

One night, on chancing to open the door of a room in a Cowgate close, an involuntary exclamation of horror escaped our lips. It was a small apartment, in size about three strides either way, in the last stages of decay. The walls were brown with dirt. A dirty bedstead, covered with a few clothes in a state of filth harmonising with the general foulness of the room, stood in one corner; a tumble-down table was propped up in another; and through the smoke that filled the room we could indistinctly see, huddling round the fire, the raggedest and dirtiest group of human beings we ever set eyes on.

Seated on rude benches round the fire, stretching out their hands greedily towards the feeble flames, were a man and his wife, a girl of about ten years of age, and two boys of younger age; and in a box resembling a cradle lay an infant of a few weeks. The boys were tattered enough in all conscience; one of them had on only a fragmentary shirt, and lower garments many sizes too large for him, suspended by a single brace. But as a picturesque raggamuffin he was entirely cast into the shade by his sister. Her face had upon it the accumulated dirt of weeks; her dishevelled hair had long been innocent of the comb; part of the skirt of an old dress was thrown over her shoulders, and a rag of indefinite shape and origin was tied round her waist. There was nothing between these worn-out shreds and her bare skin, as her father demonstrated by drawing aside the rags and uncovering the dirt-engrained body.

This was a case of terrible destitution. There was not a morsel of food in the house, and no prospect of getting any. The father, a mason’s labourer, had been disabled by an accident to his leg three weeks before, and was unable to work. During that time they had received half-a-crown a week from the Parochial Board; but it will be allowed that five sixpences a week are starvation rations for a family of six souls. The eagerness of these poor creatures at the mention of bread was touching to behold. The small boy fairly tumbled down the stair after us in his hurry to get the loaf we purchased at a neighbouring shop.

Appalling as was this picture of want and wretchedness, it was surpassed in gruesomeness by an experience we had in another hovel in Covenant Close, High Street. The room was like many others in that locality—small, ill-ventilated, dirty to the last degree, and in a state of miserable disrepair. Though the night was one of the coldest we had this winter, there was no fire, and from the mantelshelf a lamp in which the oil was all but exhausted, gave out a flickering light that served only to reveal the wretchedness of the surroundings. A broken chair stood by the cheerless hearth, and this was all the furniture with the exception of a bed, in which, Wrapped in ragged blankets, lay a pale-faced, un-washed boy. But it was the appearance of the woman who opened the door that struck us with a feeling akin to horror. She was literally half naked. Her feet were bare; a short, tattered gown scarce covered the calves of her legs; her dress, open at the neck, showed her grimy breast, and round her head was bound a scrap of flannel, with which she tried to assuage the pangs of neuralgia. Neuralgia under the most advantageous circumstances is torture enough; what it must have been with the added pains of hunger and cold would baffle the power of language to describe.

This woman’s story was short, and as grievous as short. Her husband, a labourer, was idle, thrown out of work by the railway strike. At that moment he was out searching for employment. She had no money, no food, no coal, no oil for the lamp, and was just about to huddle in beside her child for the sake of the little warmth the scanty blankets could afford. She was ill and starving, but it was needless to tell us that. The ghastly figure before us told its own tale without words. We gave the woman a little money to stave off starvation a little longer, and then left this grim chamber of horrors. From a neighbour we learned that the poor creature had been apprehended by the police that morning for stealing a piece of coal, but that the authorities, evidently moved with compassion at her pitiable plight, had detained her in the cells for only three hours, and then set her free to go “home.” One is inclined to think that, under the circumstances, freedom was not a tiling to be desired.

Such privation as this could not be of long duration; in whatever way it ended it must of necessity be sharp and short. Less startling, it may be, but every whit as saddening, are the cases of chronic destitution which are found with distressing frequency in one’s wanderings in the slums. Away down in those sunless, joyless regions there are hundreds of hapless beings who, even by incessant toil, cannot keep their heads above water. They do not know what it is to have a short respite from anxiety for their next meal.

They seldom experience the satisfaction of having a full meal; hunger is ever their companion. In the hovels of Lower Greenside may be found not a few instances of poor families whom stress of circumstances has driven from comfortable and respectable homes. The true blatant, brutal slum “moucher” born and bred is indigenous to the Cowgate and the Grassmarket, and the adjacent localities; but, so far as we could judge, Lower Greenside hides within its sombre depths a different class of people—unfortunate creatures of undoubted respectability who have been forced to retreat step by step before their gaunt enemy Poverty, until at length they found themselves immured in those dismal subterraneous regions.

A case illustrative of this gradual descent was that of a seamstress, who lived in a room there with her two children. Though she was yet under middle age, her face was worn and deeply lined, while her haggard, anxious face and bent figure told of a hard struggle for existence. Once she had been better off, her husband being a tailor in good employment. But he died, and she supported herself and her two children by working as a machinist. Soon, however, her eyesight, which had never been of the best, began to fail. Day after day brought increasing difficulty; she struggled against the infirmity; but eventually she lost her situation, for she was unable to do the fine work demanded of her. Now she kept body and soul together by doing odd dressmaking jobs where careful workmanship was not necessary, such as repairing or making down an old dress for any of her poor neighbours. In this way, and by doing such charing as she could get, she made from half-a-crown to three and sixpence a week, and even this wretched pittance was precarious. This was all she had with which to pay her rent of one and sixpence a week, and to provide food, coal, and oil. Indeed, she said, were it not for an occasional soup ticket and scraps of food given to her by tender-hearted neighbours almost as poor as herself, she could not live at all, for often she was entirely without food or money, and did not know where her next meal was to conic from.

She had applied to the Parochial Board, but had been refused assistance, because she lived in a “land” which had an evil repute, and the parochial authorities are naturally chary of giving relief to persons whom they suspect of leading an immoral life. Could she, then, not remove to respectable locality? But here she was confronted with an insurmountable difficulty. To remove, money was necessary, for she could not get another house unless she paid the landlord a month’s rent in advance, which is the invariable rule with the proprietors of those one-roomed houses. A month’s rent meant six shillings, and to her six shillings was a great sum of money, quite beyond her power to scrape together.

And thus she remained, chained to the rock; toiling in hunger and squalor for her forty pence a week, and glad that by so doing she could keep her bairns with her in that dilapidated and almost furnitureless shelter.

These arc mere sketches of scenes whose hideousness can only be realised when viewed at close quarters, and the contemplation of which produces a sense of helplessness bordering upon despair. You may do your best to relieve a hungering family here and there, but you do so with the feeling that you might as well try to dip the ocean dry with a teaspoon. And yet the public seem to have the comfortable notion that though the poor of Edinburgh have their hard times like other people, they rarely suffer from actual starvation. This is a reasonable belief when one considers the huge sum that is spent in charitable objects; but, nevertheless, the public are labouring under a sad delusion.


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