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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter III. The Cry of the Children


At every turn in an exploration of the slums, one has his emotions of pity, or despair, or indignation aroused ; but there is nothing that so thoroughly melts the heart to compassion, or depresses it to hopelessness, or fills it to bursting-point with hot indignation, as an insight into the conditions under which the children of the poor exist. Pity for the wretched lot of a man or a woman is almost always tempered with the reflection that they have their fate in their own hands, and that they probably have themselves been partly to blame for their degraded state. But there is no such consideration to mitigate the flow of sympathy for the hapless bairns, of whom it may be said without exaggeration that they have been “damned, not born into the world.” They might almost as well have been born in hell so far as their chances of virtuous rearing are concerned.

Let fathers and mothers who have comfortable homes filled with bright-eyed children consider the constant watchfulness, care, and tenderness they must exercise to keep alive and train their offspring—and this with all the advantages of decent surroundings, a sufficient income, and healthy moral influences. Let them first ponder these things, and then let them turn to look upon child-life in the slums, and they will soon cease to wonder why there is so much poverty, misery, and crime in the city.

If medical men whose duties take them to these dark regions would speak, they could tell facts that would make one shudder; and not the least horrifying of these would be of the manner in which many of the children of the poor are ushered into the world.

It is not an unusual thing on the eve of a birth for a supply of whisky to be brought in to celebrate the event. The father and a few neighbours with a keen scent for the liquor gather in the room where the woman is lying. The whisky is produced, and a preliminary “nip” goes round. Naturally this is followed by another and another, till the guests become noisy; more drink is sent for, and the tippling quickly develops into a riotous drinking bout.

Picture the horrors of such a scene; a woman lying in agony in the midst of a drunken, cursing crew, too intoxicated to listen to or understand her cries of pain. A doctor tells us that on one occasion when called to an accouchement lie found the room like a piggery; the husband, in a state of bestial intoxication, lay snoring on the floor; and three half-clothed women in an advanced stage of befuddlement were huddled together in one corner of the room. In another case the husband, who was fighting drunk, loudly swore that he would not allow the doctor to lay a finger upon his wife, who lay bleeding to death from internal hemorrhage. The doctor had to get the infuriated man removed before he could turn his attention to the dying woman.

A third instance, surpassing these in ghastliness of detail, was given to us by a woman who at one time was a manageress in a lodging-house. A woman, one of the lodgers, and among the most abandoned of the lot, was about to be delivered. A day or two before the birth she “got on the spree” with several companions. She happened to be one of those bedevilled beings, who, when once set agoing, never stop drinking till they have not a copper, or a bit of furniture or scrap of clothing that can be converted into money.

So at it they went. First their money was spent; then the few shillings’ worth of furniture was liquidated; the baby-clothes lent to her by a neighbour went next, to be followed soon by the blankets off the bed on which the woman about to become a mother lay. At length these insatiable drunkards took the very clothes off the woman, every rag of them, and pawned them to get whisky. Whether they did this last with or without the consent of the woman we do not know; but this, we were assured, was a fact : when the doctor came lie found the woman lying stark naked on the bare mattress, and when the child was born it had to be wrapped in a piece of an old sack. Having attended to the babe, the doctor went away, and returned soon after with blankets and some human-like clothing for the infant.

So much for the way in which these little creatures of the slums first see the light.

Their upbringing is in keeping with this initial stage; or, to speak more correctly, they have no upbringing, they are merely left to “hang as they grow,” surrounded by every maimer of abomination. Born amidst debauchery and blasphemy, their infancy is passed in neglect and privation, unless, happily for themselves, they go to swell the numbers of our enormous infant mortality.

Even set down in cold figures, the mortality among this class of children is startling enough— over fifty per cent, of the whole number of deaths in the poor quarters of the town, compared with eight per cent, among the children of the upper-classes. In other words, of the total number of deaths in one-roomed dwellings, one half is set down to infant mortality ; while of the deaths that take place in houses rented above 30, not a twelfth are those of children of five years and under. What a hideous revelation of the suffering and criminal neglect by which those innocents are done to death! For they cannot be said to die from “natural causes.”

In an evil-smelling room, a mere closet, in a Cowgate tenement, we found three women and two men, who were evidently in the course of enjoying a prolonged “boose.” On a filthy bed two children were lying, ill with the whooping-cough. They were not in the bed ; the unfeeling mother had carelessly laid them, with their clothes on, on the top of the blankets. It was plain that one of the children, an infant about six months old, was on the point of death. It lay on its (back breathing in gasps, with livid face, and its thin little arms extended in front of it in a most unnatural position, as if they were already stiffening. And yet, while the bairns were thus suffering, the men and women scarcely took any notice of them. Half-dazed with drink, they were waiting for the return of one of their number with whisky from the public house at the foot of the stair. A few minutes after we quitted this wretched hovel there issued from it the sounds of cursing and fighting, followed by a heavy thud on the floor, as of two persons falling together in a struggle, and a string of frightful oaths were ground out from between clenched teeth. The division of the whisky had apparently led to a fight; and though the whole landing rang with the hullabaloo, not one of the inhabitants paid the slightest attention to it. These scenes are too common to attract attention.

To such a life the slum-born child awakens to consciousness. Its first impressions are of reeling parents, drunken brawls, and every kind of brutality and indecency. Its first lisping attempts at speech are mingled with the oaths and foulness that enter into the every-day conversation of its elders. One is shocked to notice the utter disregard of the men and women for decency of speech in the presence of children. Blackguards of the better classes usually restrain themselves if young people happen to be present, but not so their fellow-roughs of the lower strata of society. Among them oaths and the filthiest of language arc bandied about without regard to age or sex; and, naturally, the children imitate their language and actions. Morality has no chance of life in such a pestilential atmosphere. These arc, indeed, regions “where virtue is impossible, and goodness a dream of an unknown land.”

The size of the poor man’s family has long been proverbial, and one striking, and at the same time distressing, feature of this side of slum-life is the great number of children that one sees. They swarm everywhere—lying asleep in coils in the dreary rooms; loitering aimlessly about in the dark passages; or disporting themselves in the courts and streets as only street arabs can. Picture to yourself the squalid misery of a one-roomed dwelling filled with tattered, hungry children, to whose wail for bread the helpless mother can only reply with vague promises of food which her own aching heart tells her are but fencings with despair.

A scene like this we came upon in the dusk of a cold winter day. The mother, a hollow-checked, famine-worn woman, was pacing the room singing softly to an infant in her arms, while the second youngest of her seven bairns held her skirts and whimpered for bread. The other five, the eldest of whom was barely twelve years of age, were crouching round a dispirited-looking fire. With the exception of a bed there was not a single article of furniture in the room—not a table, not a chair, not even a stool or a box on which to take a seat. This destitute family were waiting for the father to come home; he was out of work and had been away all day searching for employment.

We leave to others to explain why it generally falls to the lot of poor men to accumulate large families, contenting ourselves with the observation that their improvidence has certainly the support of their affluent fellow-men. By our system of charity we place a premium on thriftlessness and irresponsibility. The careless parent regards his increasing family without concern, for he knows that the maintenance of his children will not press upon him as a very heavy burden. They will be educated for nothing; odds and ends of clothing-given by some charitable society or philanthropic individual will serve to cover their nakedness; and as for food, they can rub along pretty well with what they may get at soup kitchens and “free breakfasts,” or may pick up in the streets;

and what docs he care for their sufferings so long as they do not cost him anything and he is left to go comfortably to the devil ? And so they arc practically turned adrift on the world.

How these waifs contrive to exist is a mystery. The “hardening” theory is the only explanation; for their sufferings are awful to contemplate; it is almost impossible to fall into exaggeration in describing them. They are neglected, starved, beaten. The brute who begot them frequently exhausts his drunken fury upon them for any reason or for none. Then they flee in terror from him into the streets, and, not knowing where to take refuge, pass the night in stairs or any quiet corner they can light upon. Not unfrequently they find their way to the Children’s Shelter in the High Street, where they are taken care of by the officials of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or they are picked up in their wanderings by an officer of the Society and made comfortable till their ease—and, let us hope, that of their parents also—is disposed of by the Sheriff.

Well may one stand aghast at the barbarity revealed by the records of the cases dealt with by this Society. Here are a fcwT specimen cases out of the hundreds unearthed in the course of a year.

Excessive Beating.—Three children, nine, seven, and five, were found in a dark and filthy back room, beyond hearing and far away from neighbours. No food. The father slept on the bed with blankets, the children on the floor. He went out at six, returned at nine. If the children overslept themselves he used to beat them. When brought to the Shelter, the eldest girl had a bad black eye, and her body was severely marked. Father sent to prison for twenty-one days.

Assault.—Infant, aged six months. The mother drunk. The baby was ill, had measles, and large sore on left arm from vaccination. The mother wilfully threw her sick child from her arms twice on to a stone floor. At night, 9 p.m., she was found drunk on the floor of her house, the baby crying and lying on the hearthstone on her sore arm. Mother sent to prison for fourteen days.

Assault.—A girl, aged eight. The mother is a drunkard and a terror to her husband and seven children. For not going to school, the mother took the poker and struck the girl on the eye, the arm and about her body. The doctor said the tissues of her arm felt like a pulp under his touch. Her face was terribly disfigured and swollen. The girl was taken to the Shelter and then sent to ail industrial school. The mother was sent to prison for thirty days. .

Cruel Neglect.—Five children, ages eleven, eight, seven, five, four, were found all nearly naked, the youngest quite naked, suffering from sores and weak eyes through want. All covered with vermin, no food, no furniture. They had not tasted food from the morning previous to being found. The smell was sickening. The mother sold fish, and left early in the morning, and gave to the children what she could; the father a drunkard, and so heartless that he took the scant clothing off the boy aged four and sold it at a rag shop to get drink. The children taken to Shelter. Father sent to prison for fourteen days.

Cruel Neglect.—Four children, ages twelve, ten, eight, five, were found in an area, living in a collar, so dark that at twelve noon a light had to be struck before the officer could see the children. They were left in the morning by the mother without food. She would not return until night, usually drunk. They had had no fire for weeks, and were ill and had sores from want and neglect. They were covered with vermin, and the only bed they had was bits of paper picked off the streets. They were taken to the Shelter. Mother sent to prison for one month.

Starvation.—Four children, ages twelve, ten, eight, five. Mother the widow of a sea captain. She took a large rented house to keep lodgers, but lost her health and was found ill in bed with not a mouthful of food in the house. For days they had had no fire in the cold weather. They were all supplied with food at once and the three youngest were taken to the Shelter.

Selling Vestas.—A boy aged ten, his only clothing a torn jacket and a pair of knickerbockers, in a very dirty state. When asked what his father did, “I never had a father, sir.” His mother, found in an attic in Greenside, with three other children; no food, no furniture—not even a little straw. The boy was taken to the Shelter, the mother and children sent to the poorhouse. The boy has since been sent to an industrial school.

Selling Vestas.—A girl, aged eleven. This girl was found in Princes Street. Inquiries were made and it was found that there are eight children. Four sell newspapers after school and make 32s. per week. The father drinks and seldom works. He was cautioned,

Begging.—Boy, aged ten, found nearly naked begging at west end Princes Street. His father used to wait for him at Tron Church till 2 a.m., and take the money from him. Boy sent to an industrial school, father and mother convicted and admonished.

This thought persists in coming uppermost in one’s mind as he looks upon the array of pale and sunken young faces, and listens to their tale of woe, and reads those records of barbarism : let us good British folks put our own house in order before we try to mend the morals of other people; and when, in a hundred years or so, we have made a favourable impression upon our home-bred savages, it will be time enough to turn our attention to the reformation of the mild mannered barbarians abroad; otherwise we may yet learn, experimentally, that...

The child’s sob in the silence curses deeper
Than the strong man in his wrath.


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