THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 10

"Homeless and Hungry" by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

“Homeless and Hungry” by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

In Chapter 10, Jack London slept rough to see what that was like for the homeless.
One can imagine that sleeping rough in a large metropolitan area with lots of parks would be something like going camping. If it was a nice warm evening, a sleeping bag (modern term) wouldn’t be needed. If it wasn’t raining—something unpredictable in a London summer—the nice soft lawn of a park would make a good resting place.

Except that the police, along their beats, checked the parks for those sleeping rough at night. So find some shrubbery and hide amidst them and doze off, right? No, the parks had guardians who patrolled them at night. They knew all the spots where the homeless tried to shelter. If they found someone, they alerted the nearest beat constable.

Okay, so no soft lawn, shrubberies didn’t work; parks in general were out. Perhaps the streets had something: alleys, doorways, sewer grates, culverts, railway bridges and viaducts. Unfortunately the constables knew their beats so well all likely sleeping spots were well-known and checked regularly.

Why weren’t the homeless allowed to sleep at night? Clearly, the law did not allow them to do so in public places. Jack London is similarly stumped by this. If the idea was to make the homeless life so uncomfortable that people would get jobs—assuming that any became available—the law or ordinance against sleeping rough at night worked against it. Obviously, a well-rested person who could actually perform labor during the day would more easily find work. Without that consideration, the effort to keep the homeless awake seems at best arbitrary, at worst a particularly cruel one.

Perhaps a notion about the lower class and poor that was carried by many from a higher station played a part; that unfortunates deserved what they got in life because they were inherently inferior and morally corrupt. They were all “choke artists” and “losers,” to use more modern terms. Implied in this thinking is the idea that evidence of the poor’s inferiority was the fact that they had landed hard on the streets in the predicament in which they found themselves. That’s circular thinking.

Trying to sleep rough in London at night, one might get 10 minutes of sleep at a stretch, 30 if lucky, but what was the quality of that sleep? It had to be spent in an environment full of vermin; rats, mice, flies, and scavengers; hungry humans, dogs, and cats.

In a time when the majority of travel that didn’t occur on foot was still powered by horse—hundreds of thousands of them in London of the time—the streets were mired each day in at least a thousand tons of horse dung and over a hundred thousand gallons of horse urine. That had to smell bad.

Much of the manure in London was gathered by scavengers and hauled away for use in agriculture and industry. London would have been totally mired in waste if not for the scavengers. While unemployment had become an increasing problem, the poor, both adults and children, scavenged and sold what they found. The pure finders scooped dog poop for tanneries. The bone grubbers collected bone for the makers of fertilizer. Toshers scavenged in the sewers. Mudlarks, many of them children, scavenged on the banks of the poisonous River Thames. Metal, stray bits of coal, leather, and cloth were all sellable.

Despite the army of unemployed scavenging for industry, much horse dung remained on the streets long enough for flies to breed in it.

I remember my father who was born in the 1920s talking about flies in “the old days.” One of the things he said was that before horses were gone from the streets in Nashville, Tennessee, there had been a lot more flies. “Flies everywhere,” he said, “getting into everything.” Of course that was Nashville, Tennessee when it was a small city in a county of a couple hundred thousand people, not the London of millions.

The average lifespan of a horse in London at the time was about 3 years. Flies also bred in the carcasses of horses, which were often left where they had fallen dead at least until rigor mortise relaxed to make dismemberment and carting away of the remains easier. The flies needed food, and visited every moist aperture they could find, spreading diseases like typhoid fever.

Here is an illustration from Punch Magazine that gives a sense of the poisonous environment of London. The illustration was published in 1858 during a bad cholera outbreak. After that, London had built the best sewers in the world to improve the situation. The river was much cleaner, the drinking water much safer, but filth on the streets had only increased.

LondonSewage

“Thames Offspring” Punch Magazine 1858, Volume 35

Try sleeping in that environment. I’d want to cover my face for sure. To wear something over my mouth and nose might also have helped slightly to protect my lungs from the horrid air which was charged with soot particulates and sulfur dioxide from industrial and home use—heating and cooking—of coal burning. The poisons in the London air took the lives of thousands of people every year.

Then there were the human scavengers I spoke of, some desperate enough to take what they could off a sleeping man, despite the risks. Remember, leather and cloth were sellable. One might wake up without shoes or missing pieces of clothing. That’s assuming one woke up at all. Hungry children banded together to scavenge in groups, some of them, organized by adults known as kidsmen, were quite ruthless. Fagin in Oliver Twist was a kidsman.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the cats, but feral dogs…. Hmmm, my pup, Jasper, looks at me with a particularly sad expression when I consider writing about canines molesting sleeping humans, so I’ll just leave that up to my audiences’ imaginations.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Preorder A Brutal Chill in August ABrutalChillInAugust_cover
Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

About Alan M Clark ControlledAccidentAutoPortrait

Author and illustrator, Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. His awards include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of seventeen books, including ten novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released 44 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon. www.alanmclark.com

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 9

Entering the Workhouse

In Chapter 9, we see that Jack London finally succeeded in entering the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward. He opened the chapter with an apology to his body for what he forced it to endure.

Again, engaging in conversation with the men sharing his predicament, he learned that many knew no better way to get on in the lives they had. The men told stories of their experiences in the various spikes (workhouses), some with happy endings, some with sad ones. They gave a warning of what awaited the infirm within the workhouse infirmary, the “blackjack” or “white potion,” they believed was given to hasten the departure of those who lingered in disease and had become a burden to the relief system. They shared knowledge of those who hated them, those who felt that the human beings who entered the relief system were barely human and deserving of no compassion. Those people frequently saw paupers as society’s pirates, conmen, selfish individuals not willing to do their share in life and who knowingly drag everyone else down. Some of the haters were those who worked within the relief system itself.

A conversation between Elizabeth and John Stride in Say Anything But Your Prayers helps to express some of the feelings. In this scene, Elizabeth is home in the evening after performing her daily labor of oakum picking at the Poplar workhouse for the out relief she and her ill husband are receiving:

In her second week of out relief labor, Elizabeth could not contain her complaints any longer. “I understand the workhouse guardians want the work to be a hardship so only the truly needy seek relief,” she said to John, “but why must they work us until we’re miserable?”

“For fear wages will suffer,” he said, “Parliament doesn’t want relief to compete with labor.”

“Jobs are so hard to come by, wages drop anyway,” Elizabeth said. “There are so many hungry people who’ll die without relief.”

“Some workhouse Guardians have good intentions. At least once a week, though, I read in the newspaper that some crow or another in Parliament is squawking about how those who bear the harsh treatment deserve it because they lack the moral strength to do better. You know that’s the common belief.”

Indeed, he was’t telling Elizabeth anything she didn’t already understand. When she’d worked in the coffee shop, she’d heard plenty of well-dressed people push such ideas about the poor. Most were careful not to sound too heartless. Working with Lettie at laundries and kitchens, she’d noticed the same sort of message was well received and repeated by many laborers who treated the poor as scapegoats, despite the fact that the workers themselves suffered low wages, long hours, and no redress with employers who had little regard for the needs of those they employed.

HoldingBackTears_small_sepia

“Holding Back Tears” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS by Alan M. Clark

John shook his head. “As long as people see the poor as mumpers, prigs, and sharpers, employers will do as they please.”

“I’m no thief or con artist!” Elizabeth said. “I don’t go to the workhouse because I’m not willing to do better.”

“I know,” John said, gently reaching to take her dry, cracked hands. “You’re a hard working woman.”

When she’d arrived for the first time in London so long ago, Elizabeth was alarmed by the large crowds and the abundance of activity. She’d thought of the city as a great, hungry beast trying to digest her. At present, she saw the workhouse as the London beast’s gastric mill, a gizzard full of hard knocks meant to grind the toughness out of those the city might have trouble digesting otherwise. She was determined not to let it beat her, but feared she would soon meet her limit.

The scene above takes place in the year 1877. The ranks of the homeless had grown exponentially and the conditions within the relief system had worsened immensely in the following twenty-five years. Jack London ate the bitter food of the workhouse, and stayed the night, barely able to sleep in a filthy hammock within inches of his neighbors and surrounded by men reeking of bodily neglect, noisy in their gastric and respiratory distress, and crying out in their sleep from nightmares. The next day, the labor he was given for the relief benefits he’d received was to help keep clean the workhouse infirmary. While doing so, he was exposed to the virulent and potentially deadly refuse of the sick and dying. The conditions being harsher than he’d imagined and figuring he’d got the sampling he needed to talk about the experience with verisimilitude, he decided at the end of the work day to flee through the gate that had been opened to admit the dead wagon, which had come to the workhouse to collect the bodies of five inmates. He was required by the system to stay another night or forfeit the right to apply for relief in the future. The author did not hesitate in making his decision.

Workhouse Infirmary

I spoke to a conservative friend about what Jack London was doing in writing The People of the Abyss. Her response was, “If he’d really been willing to know what it was like, he wouldn’t have set up the extra room as a retreat, and he wouldn’t have picked summer as the time to do the investigation.”

I thought that an extraordinary dismissal of the author’s effort.

Another, ultra-conservative responded similarly, but with more vehemence. “Jack London was a communist. The fact that he did it during warm weather and had a room to go hide in when things got tough shows he was just a bleeding heart. The poor were probably encouraged by communists. London has always had a lot of immigrants. The book is tripe.”

Hmmmm? Sounded to me like someone trying to apply 21st century right wing talking points to 1902 London. I know a lot of people, many of them brave and generous, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, but I do not personally know anyone who has the guts to do anything like what Jack London did just to see how the unfortunates of the world suffered. I am certainly not the sort of person brave enough to do that.

Immigrants were the problem then too, huh?

Scapegoats are a-dime-a-dozen when people are scared that they will not have enough or that their world might have to change a little to allow for someone else. There are always those seeking followers, individuals willing to stoke those types of fears to gain and solidify power. We have so-called leaders in America today who use those tactics. It’s easy to follow such strong men, because they point out the best scapegoats, heap ridicule on them in a particularly clever way, and thereby provide a convenient target for unfocused anger.

The trick with scapegoats is not getting to know them too well. They must remain out of focus in order for their role to continue. Stick with stereotyping the scapegoat or suffer uncomfortable compassion and discover that a real human being exists under the heavy cloak of suspicion and turpitude they’ve been forced into. The soft people of the society to which I belong, and I include myself in this—with our myriad conveniences and comforts, with our television and internet-groomed perspectives and personalities, and our sated bellies and psyches—we should be very careful about what and how we learn about how the other half live. Sorry—my fraction of one half may be a little off.

Yes, sarcasm. I get petty and small at times.

Many of those Jack London met in the workhouse were those who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, had no family to help them, and could find no way out of their predicament. Some were merely too old to be considered employable in a job market with too few jobs in a society filled with eager young people seeking work. Some suffered damage from performing the work they were qualified to do and could no longer function in the field of their expertise. So many people died suddenly of communicable diseases, especially those living in the close quarters of the East End, that sometimes all but one member of a family had passed on. In that case, the entire family safety net for the individual remaining was gone.

When I hear conservatives and libertarians, especially those who will brook no compromises, talk about giving the markets freedom and deregulating, I think of the laissez-faire capitalism of Victorian England, which had in the time of Jack London’s investigation just spilled over into the Georgian Era. I think of the abuses against workers the system allowed. I think of the poisoning of the environment and consequently the poisoning of the citizens. I think of the ineffective safety net for the old and infirm. I think of the power of greed and wonder that so many willingly or cynically disregard that in their political calculations.

Some regulations are meant to help society. Some are meant to line the pockets of those who lobbied for them, but the problem isn’t one-sided. Where I live in Eugene Oregon, I have to have a smoke alarm in each room in my house. Clearly, someone wanted to sell more smoke alarms. There are also regulations to prevent my neighbors from allowing waste, raw sewage, and chemicals in the runoff from their property into the storm sewers. That helps preserve the life that depends on the flow of clean groundwater and helps keep the rivers that constitute our municipal water sources from becoming poisonous. So many people fish those streams and depend on them for commerce of many types. A fellow down the street from me was running a mechanic shop out of his home garage, working mostly on outboard engines and snowmobiles. He was shut down for allowing waste, including gasoline and old oil from his business to run into the street drains. He saw that as a great injustice.

My response to my conservative friend concerning Jack London making his investigation in summer and establishing a retreat in the form of a warm, dry room: “The author put himself and his health at risk in order to gain understanding and to share what he found.”

I’ll add to that response here for my ultra-conservative acquaintance: Jack London could have just written an adventure story. He was good at it, and the ability had earned him money and fame.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Preorder A Brutal Chill in August Bunhill_Color_Filters_Cropped_text_flattened
Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

About Alan M Clark ControlledAccidentAutoPortrait

Author and illustrator, Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. His awards include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of seventeen books, including ten novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released 44 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon. www.alanmclark.com

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 8

OutsideWhitechapelWorkhouse

People trying to get into the workhouse.

Having arrived too late to secure a place for the night in the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward in the previous chapter, in chapter 8, Jack London and 2 other men try to make it to the Poplar Workhouse—3 miles distant from the Whitechapel Workhouse—in time to find a place to rest for the night.

We learn about these men as the author does during conversations while they walk. They are average, working class fellows, one a carter, one a carpenter. Jack London considers them old at ages 58 and 65 respectively, but I believe he arrives at his opinion based on context—the men are trying to survive in the city of London. Both men are unemployed and have no prospects because they are poor and considered too old for the job market.

The safety net in Great Britain at the time was the relief system of the workhouse. For a bed and the most crude form of nutrition, inmates of the system were required to perform labor for many hours at such tasks as picking 4 pounds of oakum per day, or breaking at leasts 1000 pounds of rock with a sledge hammer in the same time period. The breaking of stone into gravel is straight-forward enough, but picking oakum requires some explanation for modern audiences.

PickingOakum

Women in the workhouse picking oakum.

Oakum, a product of recycled rope, was used to fill the gaps in the timbers and decking of wooden ships. The fibers were tarred and pounded into the gaps to make ships water-tight. The task was one, much like rock breaking, that was used in penal systems in America as well as in Great Britain, and other countries. I included a scene of oakum picking in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride, Say Anything But Your Prayers. In the following scene, the character is receiving “out-relief” in return for daily labor. In her case, the relief constitutes a few shillings and a loaf of bread per week for her and her husband, John Stride. He has been too ill to work for such a long time that the couple is destitute, despite the fact that Elizabeth has been competing for every job she can get, and has for the longest time only been able to find short term sewing and scouring work. The funds and the bread provided by the relief system are barely enough to keep the couple alive. She walks to the workhouse each morning to perform the required labor:

The Matron led Elizabeth to a work station in a high-ceilinged hall, reminded her of the prohibition against talking, and left. Elizabeth sat on a hard wooden bench with other inmates. Short partitions on the bench separated her from the women seated on either side. Nearby inmates glanced at her with little curiosity. A staff member, perhaps another inmate, dumped at Elizabeth’s feet a bundle of rope segments chopped into ten to twenty inch lengths. The densely spun brown sections, streaked with tar, were to be carefully unraveled and untangled, each fiber liberated from the others and piled together.

She made short work of undoing her first length of rope.

The work isn’t as bad as you feared, she thought.

As Elizabeth performed the task repetitively over the course of many hours, reality set in. Sitting for so long on the hard seat that had no backrest drove her hips and spine to agony. In short order, the labor became an abrasive insult to the flesh of her hands.

This next bit of description comes from my Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (Polly is living in the workhouse at the time):

Chaplain Emes gave the after-breakfast devotion. While putting her hands together in prayer, Polly gently rubbed the aching joints of her digits, careful not to crack open the painful whitlows at her fingernails that came from endless hours of picking oakum.

The men with Jack London are in a hurry to get to the workhouse, knowing full well what awaits them: The labor, a crude bed, a breakfast consisting of 6 oz of hard bread, and 12 ounces of bitter-tasting oatmeal or Indian corn gruel called skilly, 8 more ounces of the hard bread and 1 1/2 ounces of cheese that constitutes a midday meal, and the same for supper, but with the addition of another 12 ounces of skilly. That is more than these men have on the street, and they fear the coming of night; trying to find a hidden spot to “sleep rough” through the long hours of darkness; trying to stay warm and relaxed enough to doze off and get some rest while the police try to disrupt them at every opportunity. No doubt they would also worry about being molested in some way while vulnerable with their eyes closed, but they know they must smell like hell, and that others can clearly see they have nothing of value to steal. Still, in the London night there were feral dogs, plenty of hungry rats, and of course the vagaries of human behavior.

Though they hurry to the Poplar workhouse, along the way, they also scavenge without breaking their strides, finding and eating the discarded parts people have dropped on the footway of fruit; orange skin, grape stems, rotting apple cores. They pick up anything that might hold any nutritional value, pop it into their mouths, and swallow.

They act like starving dogs, yet are intelligent, well-informed human beings. They have discussions about politics and human nature. They advise Jack London, who has given his circumstance as that of an American seaman who ran on hard times in London and became trapped in the city, to flee the country ASAP.

The three men did not make it to the Poplar workhouse in time, but I will not spoil Jack London’s tale by telling what else took place in chapter 8.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Preorder A Brutal Chill in August Bunhill_Color_Filters_Cropped_text_flattened
Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

About Alan M Clark ControlledAccidentAutoPortrait

Author and illustrator, Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. His awards include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of seventeen books, including ten novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released 44 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon. www.alanmclark.com