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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter VIII. Misery in the Mass: What is and what might be


In putting together in the shape of these sketches some of our experiences in the slums of Edinburgh, we have endeavoured to follow out a certain plan. The conditions of life there arc so varied that any attempt to describe them without, at least, some sort of rough classification, would result in utter bewilderment alike to writer and reader.

The classification we adopted was this. In “The Poor Man at Home,” and the two subsequent sketches, we outlined the mode of life in one-roomed dwellings rented on the weekly system. Taking a step lower in the social scale we came to the dwellers in furnished lodgings, a class even more shiftless and improvident than the others. A step still lower brought us to the region of the common lodging-house, from which wc made further descents to trampdom and the retreats of the homeless.

Each of these divisions might be broken up into many sub-divisions, every one with its separate tale of woe. Indeed, we are painfully aware that we have but touched the fringe of the subject; merely skirted the margin of this morass of misery in which so many thousands of our fellows are floundering without hope of extrication. Those persons whose knowledge of slum-life has been derived from sources other than actual contact with it, cannot summon before their imagination any accurate representation of existence there. Their general ideas of extreme misery may be vivid; but they do not produce the alternating sensations of loathing, pity, and despair that a close survey of the details of degradation arouse.

To say that the scenes are appalling is to speak with moderation. No creation of the fancy could surpass in horror the horrors of the reality; the faculty of exaggeration for once finds itself limp and over-matched. At times one can only turn away, benumbed with despair, conscious of nothing but a sickening sense of the hopelessness of the whole matter. “There is no hope; let them drift!” one is tempted to cry on emerging from those demesnes of desolation, after a night passed in threading the dark labyrinths where hunger, squalor, and vileness arc met with at every turn.

Nor do these conditions pertain only to the quarters popularly known as the slums — the High Street, Canongate, Grassmarket, Cowgate, and neighbouring localities ; but are to be found in other parts of the town, notably Greensidc, the Pleasance, Stockbridge, and Fountainbridge, where slums may be said to be in process of growth, and where poverty and misery are none the less acute because less apparent. These also have their dreadful dens, their hordes of ragged, half-starved wretches, who live “lives that arc one agony from birth to death.”

But in whatever quarter of the city these rookeries are placed, their essential features are the same. The houses arc foul and dilapidated, many of them a scandal to civilisation, not to mention our much vaunted Modern Athens. The people live on the borderland of want, frequently experiencing days of sheer famine, and at intervals sufferings weeks of semi-starvation. Their employment is irregular and uncertain; a “steady job” is regarded as a rare piece of good fortune. One of the commonest scenes is that of the breadwinner lying in bed, out of work and dispirited; the mother, with an infant at her breast, sitting staring hopelessly into an empty fireplace, and a swarm of tattered children sitting round her and sobbing with the pain of hunger.

Add to scenes such as these occasional glimpses of barbarity and immorality too hideous to speak of, that would make the ears of the people tingle were they described in detail, and we shall have a faint presentment of the world that thousands of the inhabitants of Edinburgh are ushered into.

Surrounded by brutish associations from infancy; beaten, neglected, starved in childhood; his youth passed in society where decency is impossible, and morality nothing but a word of vague significance, the unhappy denizen of the slums is for ever knocked from pillar to post, a misery to himself and a burden to his more fortunate neighbours. Rarely does a ray of happiness stream into his life. His home-life itself is enough to cast any man into a state of perpetual depression; he has little or nothing to divert his mind from the wretchedness that encompasses him. What more natural, then, than that he should flee to the only refuge from his woes—the oblivion of intoxication! And the cosily-housed and well-fed hold up their hands in surprise and horror at the depravity of the infatuated creature, altogether unmindful, as they are, of the numberless temptations with which he is beset. If those scandalised ones realised but one-half of the squalid misery of his animal existence, they might, perhaps, join with others in the cry of pity, “ In the name of the God of mercy let them pour the maddening liquor down their throats, and feel for one brief moment that they live!”

An optimistic historian, writing on the charities of the nineteenth century, draws a picture of Edinburgh so entirely delightful that one would imagine the golden age foretold by Edward Bellamy had already arrived.

“Edinburgh,” says this writer, “has a vast hospital in which a poor man who has fallen under disease or accidental hurt receives the benefit of careful nursing and the highest medical skill. Lest his recovery should be impeded by the impure air and defective nourishment of his own home, a residence some miles out of town is provided for him during the glad days of convalescence. . . . There are several institutions in which medical advice is given gratuitously to the poor regarding the manifold ills to which they are heirs. . . .

“One association establishes lodging-houses, where the very poor can live in comfort free from the allurements of vicious companionship. Another employs its resources in improving the condition of the poor by every device which Christian thoughtfulness suggests. Another watches over the destitute sick; and to the kindly words of its agents adds an open-handed dispensation of comforts which are so needful in sickness and yet so often unattainable. . . .

“The moral interests of the poor are cared for with an enlightened zeal which is beyond praise. Children who are without guardianship are snatched by merciful hands from the perils which surround them, and safely bestowed in institutions where they are taught simple industries and receive a wholesome education. In the early stage of a boy’s industrial development, one society sends him forth to polish the soiled boots of pedestrians. Boys who love, or think they love, the sea, are sent to a training ship. For agricultural aspirants a farm school is provided. The government of these institutions is entrusted to some of the wisest and best of the citizens of Edinburgh, by whom unwearied personal care is given to the interests of their unfortunate clients. Women who have fallen from virtue are sought out and gathered into an institution whose influences are directed towards their restoration. Criminals, whose term of punishment has expired, are taken charge of by a society whose agents find for them honest employment and consequent deliverance from the temptation to commit fresh offences. . . .

“A vast machinery, worked with noble devotedness, seeks to carry the light of religious truth into the dark places of Edinburgh. ... Nearly every Christian congregation has selected a district, where its members visit the lapsed poor, and strive to awaken, in hearts dulled by suffering, some interest in the magnificence of eternity. . . .

“This disposition to raise the fallen, to befriend the friendless, is now one of the governing powers of the world. Every year its dominion widens, and even now a strong and growing public opinion is enlisted in its support. Many men still spend lives which are merely selfish. But such lives are already regarded with general disapproval. The man on whom public opinion, anticipating the reward of the highest tribunal, bestows its approbation is the man who labours that he may leave other men better and happier than he found them. With the noblest spirits of our race this disposition to be useful grows into a passion. With an increasing number it is becoming, at least, an agreeable and interesting employment. A future of high promise awaits that community whose instructed and virtuous members occupy themselves in carrying to their less happily circumstanced neighbours the good which they themselves enjoy.”

What a splendid fairy tale! What bitter irony!

To one haunted by the spectres of slum life, this description of a poor man’s elysium must read like a masterpiece of sarcasm. He may spend his days and his nights among the hovels of the poor, and yet not discover anything but the most shadowy traces of the working of this mighty organisation.

Yet this romancing chronicler is not altogether a fictionist. He describes our charities as they are on paper. We have, in truth, this magnificent and costly machinery at hand, but how much disorganised, mismanaged, abused, the wail of the little ones, the grievous voices of wearied women, and the deep curses of men struggling for existence in the dark places of Edinburgh, will tell.

There probably never was a time when the desire to raise the poor from their miserable condition was stronger in the hearts of the people than it is now. That the public arc ever ready to loosen their purse-strings in such a cause the number and wealth of our charitable institutions arc sufficient proof; and everyone who knows of the vast labour spent in those obscure places by hundreds of “noblest spirits,” unknown to the world and unmindful of its recognition, will feel assured that willing hands would not be lacking.

Of money there is enough for present purposes. Of charity-mongering there is more than enough: the people are in danger of being demoralized by ill-considered charity.

What is needed as a first step in the direction of the condition portrayed by the historian we have quoted is the combination and organisation of the numberless charitable societies which arc working assiduously and faithfully, but independently, and without knowledge of each other’s movements.

It is time to have done with this guerilla warfare, to abandon this irresponsible skirmishing, and to attack the evil with united front. Not till then shall we see any appreciable amelioration in the conditions of life in the slums of Edinburgh.


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