Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
The Bitter Cry of Outcast London by Andrew Mearns and William C. Preston
“Being poor sucks” has always been a popular topic of nonfiction, and no one writes that genre quite like the Victorians. Today’s example comes to us from 1883, and though it’s not as elaborate as other examples of this type of book, it still packs quite a punch.
Instead of being an in-depth study of lower-class living conditions or fictionalized portraits meant to entertain readers and humanize the subject matter, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London is a more straightforward call to action on the part of its authors. Said authors were involved with the church — specifically the London Congregational Union — as most philanthropists of the time were. I can’t find any info on Preston, but a note in the text indicates that Mearns was a reverend.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Bitter Cry is that it’s short. It’s only 34 pages long, more of a pamphlet than an actual book. Because of that, there is zero padding here whatsoever. The opening paragraphs of the text get right to the main point: no matter how much good that London’s philanthropists think they’re doing for the poor, it isn’t nowhere near enough. “Whilst we have been building our churches and solacing ourselves with our religion and dreaming that the millennium was coming, the poor have been growing poorer, the wretched more miserable, and the immoral more corrupt,” the authors write (Page 4). To prove their point, they declare that the LCU has searched London for the most impoverished neighborhoods in which to focus its charitable efforts, and that the results of that search are recorded in the pamphlet.
What follows is a short but still brutal look at the lives of London’s most impoverished citizens in the Victorian era. The authors claim that no exaggeration has been made, and that their notes are “…a plain recital of plain facts. Indeed, no respectable printer would print, and certainly no decent family would admit even the driest statement of the horrors and infamies discovered in one brief visitation from house to house” (Page 5). And the details are genuinely disturbing at points. Mearns and Preston discuss people’s horrid living conditions, the prevalence of alcoholism, how people turn to crime and associate with criminals out of necessity and the overall dehumanization of the populace. It’s pretty grim stuff.
We do not say the condition of their homes, for how can those places be called homes, compared with which the lair of a wild beast would be a comfortable and healthy spot? Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of the slave ship. To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water. You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way beneath every step, and which, in some places, have already broken down, leaving gaps that imperil the limbs and lives of the unwary. You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin. Then, if you are not driven back by the intolerable stench, you may gain admittance to the dens in which these thousands of beings who belong, as much as you, to the race for whom Christ died, herd together.Page 8
And when it gets to the section on what should be done to help these people, the authors stress the idea that charity and proselytizing, while both good, still aren’t enough. The root of the London poor’s problem is a lack of affordable housing.
Incredulity is not the only difficulty in the way of stirring up Christian people to help. Despair of success in any such undertaking may paralyse many. We shall be pointed to the fact that without State interference nothing effectual can be accomplished upon any large scale. And it is a fact. These wretched people must live somewhere. They must live near the centres where their work lies. They cannot afford to go out by train or tram into the suburbs; and how, with their poor emaciated, starved bodies, can they be expected—in addition to working twelve hours or more, for a shilling, or less,—to walk three or four miles each way to take and fetch? It is notorious that the Artizans Dwellings Act has, in some respects, made matters worse for them. Large spaces have been cleared of fever-breeding rookeries, to make way for the building of decent habitations, but the rents of these are far beyond the means of the abject poor. They are driven to crowd more closely together in the few stifling places still left to them; and so Dives makes a richer harvest out of their misery, buying up property condemned as unfit for habitation, and turning it into a gold-mine because the poor must have shelter somewhere, even though it be the shelter of a living tomb.Page 24
You might be wondering, was this pamphlet widely read at the time, and did it lead to some actual change? Yes and yes, according to this article I found via JSTOR. Apparently it caused quite a stir when it was published and served as the wake-up call a lot of people needed about how horrible the slums were. 138 years later, you can still feel the acute rage and despair in these words. We may be pretty numb to tragedies and inequality nowadays, but I can imagine how shocked Victorian readers would have been by something like this.
I would recommend taking a look at this if it sounds interesting to you. It’s short and easy to read, and like many examples of this kind of literature, it serves as a demonstration of what poverty and social activism looked like in eras past.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!