I’ve been reading the most remarkable book, which was written in 1902 – just when my grandparents were being born. The book is ‘The People of the Abyss’, by the celebrated American writer Jack London, who by the way was my grandfather’s favourite author.
Jack earned his living as a writer, but during 1902 came to the East End of London, threw off his tailored clothes, and donned the garb of a penniless unemployed workman to see how the other half lived. He passed himself off as a sailor on shore leave to explain his accent, and found himself a room so that every now and then he knew he’d get a good night’s sleep and a meal. However, generally he lived on the streets and got to know many people (mostly men of course), who were trying to eke out a living.
I lived in Jack’s East End 60 years later, and reaped the benefits of the NHS, both parents’ gainful employment, and the backstop of the dole if they had lost their jobs. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that the ‘dole’ system had been founded. Previously unemployment benefit had been around since 1911, but only as a kind of insurance to people who were already employed. Therefore, in 1902, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat.
I know the streets that Jack tramped along with the poor underfed souls who had reached middle age and were finding it impossible to earn even a meagre wage, as they had discovered that employers seeking casual workers preferred younger and stronger men. Whole families lived on the streets, being moved along by the police at night if they tried to sit down and sleep. If any men climbed over the park railings to sleep in peace on a park bench, it was 6 months in prison. Some men I learned even killed their wives and children rather than have them waste away through malnutrition or be sent to the workhouse.
For those fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads, many people shared one room and overcrowding in filthy bug-ridden conditions was rife. By the time I lived in Poplar, all the slums had been demolished and new housing was springing up. For all I know the street I lived in could have been full of slum properties, but all that was left of them were the odd garden wall or pile of rubble.
Jack contrasted the poverty he experienced first hand with the ‘toffs’ in the West End. As he walked through Theatreland he saw the pitiful sight of one elderly man hailing a cab for a ‘toff’ coming out of the theatre, in the hope of earning a penny. Generous to a fault, Jack paid for food for many of the people he came across, watching in awe as they demolished three or four dinners at a time and saved every scrap of food they didn’t eat. He watched the coronation of King Edward VII in all its richness and glory, while lamenting that just a few miles away people were dying through disease and lack of food and shelter.
He also writes of East Enders’ summer holidays, usually spent hop-picking in the fields of Kent. Yes, my father’s family also did this and took me along with them, although due to my extreme youth I don’t remember any of it.
Thank goodness for the NHS and unemployment benefit. Nowadays you have generations of some families ‘on the dole’ because they want the easy life and do not fancy going to work at all. Perhaps they should have walked a mile in Jack’s broken down boots…
5 stars for a wonderful (if rather depressing) and compulsive read, written in a style that is not dated at all.