The People of the Abyss
The People of the Abyss is a book by Jack London (Call of the Wild, White Fang) about life in the East End of London in 1902. He wrote this first-hand account after living in the East End (including the Whitechapel District) for several weeks, sometimes staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets. In his attempt to understand the working-class of this deprived area of London the author stayed as a lodger with a poor family. The conditions he experienced and wrote about were the same as those endured by an estimated 500,000 of the contemporary London poor.
Includes 73 photographs by the author.
- The Descent
- Johnny Upright
- My Lodging and Some Others
- A Man and the Abyss
- Those on the Edge
- Frying-Pan Alley and a Glimpse of Inferno
- A Winner of the Victoria Cross
- The Carter and the Carpenter
- The Spike
- Carrying the Banner
- The Peg
- Coronation Day
- Dan Cullen, Docker
- Hops and Hoppers
- The Sea Wife
- Property Versus Person
- The Ghetto
- Coffee-houses and Doss-houses
- The Precariousness of Life
- The Children
- A Vision of the Night
- The Hunger Wail
- Drink, Temperance, and Thrift
- The Management
The Carter and the Carpenter
It is not to die, nor even to die of hunger, that makes a man wretched. Many men have died; all men must die. But it is to live miserable, we know not why; to work sore, and yet gain nothing; to be heart-worn, weary, yet isolated, unrelated, girt in with a cold universal Laissez-faire.—carlyle
The Carter, with his clean-cut face, chin beard, and shaved upper lip, I should have taken in the United States for anything from a master workman to a well-to-do farmer. The Carpenter—well, I should have taken him for a carpenter. He looked it, lean and wiry, with shrewd, observant eyes, and hands that had grown twisted to the handles of tools through forty-seven years’ work at the trade. The chief difficulty with these men was that they were old, and that their children, instead of growing up to take care of them, had died. Their years had told on them, and they had been forced out of the whirl of industry by the younger and stronger competitors who had taken their places.
These two men, turned away from the casual ward of Whitechapel Workhouse, were bound with me for Poplar Workhouse. Not much of a show, they thought, but to chance it was all that remained to us. It was Poplar, or the streets and night. Both men were anxious for a bed, for they were “about gone,” as they phrased it. The Carter, fifty-eight years of age, had spent the last three nights without shelter or sleep, while the Carpenter, sixty-five years of age, had been out five nights.
But, O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, with white beds and airy rooms waiting you each night, how can I make you know what it is to suffer as you would suffer if you spent a weary night on London’s streets! Believe me, you would think a thousand centuries had come and gone before the east paled into dawn; you would shiver till you were ready to cry aloud with the pain of each aching muscle; and you would marvel that you could endure so much and live. Should you rest upon a bench, and your tired eyes close, depend upon it the policeman would rouse you and gruffly order you to “move on.” You may rest upon the bench, and benches are few and far between; but if rest means sleep, on you must go, dragging your tired body through the endless streets. Should you, in desperate slyness, seek some forlorn alley or dark passageway and lie down, the omnipresent policeman will rout you out just the same. It is his business to rout you out. It is a law of the powers that be that you shall be routed out.
But when the dawn came, the nightmare over, you would hale you home to refresh yourself, and until you died you would tell the story of your adventure to groups of admiring friends. It would grow into a mighty story. Your little eight-hour night would become an Odyssey and you a Homer.
Not so with these homeless ones who walked to Poplar Workhouse with me. And there are thirty-five thousand of them, men and women, in London Town this night. Please don’t remember it as you go to bed; if you are as soft as you ought to be you may not rest so well as usual. But for old men of sixty, seventy, and eighty, ill-fed, with neither meat nor blood, to greet the dawn unrefreshed, and to stagger through the day in mad search for crusts, with relentless night rushing down upon them again, and to do this five nights and days—O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, how can you ever understand?
I walked up Mile End Road between the Carter and the Carpenter. Mile End Road is a wide thoroughfare, cutting the heart of East London, and there were tens of thousands of people abroad on it. I tell you this so that you may fully appreciate what I shall describe in the next paragraph. As I say, we walked along, and when they grew bitter and cursed the land, I cursed with them, cursed as an American waif would curse, stranded in a strange and terrible land. And, as I tried to lead them to believe, and succeeded in making them believe, they took me for a “seafaring man,” who had spent his money in riotous living, lost his clothes (no unusual occurrence with seafaring men ashore), and was temporarily broke while looking for a ship. This accounted for my ignorance of English ways in general and casual wards in particular, and my curiosity concerning the same.
The Carter was hard put to keep the pace at which we walked (he told me that he had eaten nothing that day), but the Carpenter, lean and hungry, his grey and ragged overcoat flapping mournfully in the breeze, swung on in a long and tireless stride which reminded me strongly of the plains wolf or coyote. Both kept their eyes upon the pavement as they walked and talked, and every now and then one or the other would stoop and pick something up, never missing the stride the while. I thought it was cigar and cigarette stumps they were collecting, and for some time took no notice. Then I did notice.
From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them. The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.
These two men talked. They were not fools, they were merely old. And, naturally, their guts a-reek with pavement offal, they talked of bloody revolution. They talked as anarchists, fanatics, and madmen would talk. And who shall blame them? In spite of my three good meals that day, and the snug bed I could occupy if I wished, and my social philosophy, and my evolutionary belief in the slow development and metamorphosis of things—in spite of all this, I say, I felt impelled to talk rot with them or hold my tongue. Poor fools! Not of their sort are revolutions bred. And when they are dead and dust, which will be shortly, other fools will talk bloody revolution as they gather offal from the spittle-drenched sidewalk along Mile End Road to Poplar Workhouse.
Being a foreigner, and a young man, the Carter and the Carpenter explained things to me and advised me. Their advice, by the way, was brief, and to the point; it was to get out of the country. “As fast as God’ll let me,” I assured them; “I’ll hit only the high places, till you won’t be able to see my trail for smoke.” They felt the force of my figures, rather than understood them, and they nodded their heads approvingly.
“Actually make a man a criminal against ’is will,” said the Carpenter. “’Ere I am, old, younger men takin’ my place, my clothes gettin’ shabbier an’ shabbier, an’ makin’ it ’arder every day to get a job. I go to the casual ward for a bed. Must be there by two or three in the afternoon or I won’t get in. You saw what happened to-day. What chance does that give me to look for work? S’pose I do get into the casual ward? Keep me in all day to-morrow, let me out mornin’ o’ next day. What then? The law sez I can’t get in another casual ward that night less’n ten miles distant. Have to hurry an’ walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to look for a job? S’pose I don’t walk. S’pose I look for a job? In no time there’s night come, an’ no bed. No sleep all night, nothin’ to eat, what shape am I in the mornin’ to look for work? Got to make up my sleep in the park somehow” (the vision of Christ’s Church, Spitalfield, was strong on me) “an’ get something to eat. An’ there I am! Old, down, an’ no chance to get up.”
“Used to be a toll-gate ’ere,” said the Carter. “Many’s the time I’ve paid my toll ’ere in my cartin’ days.”
“I’ve ’ad three ’a’penny rolls in two days,” the Carpenter announced, after a long pause in the conversation. “Two of them I ate yesterday, an’ the third to-day,” he concluded, after another long pause.
“I ain’t ’ad anything to-day,” said the Carter. “An’ I’m fagged out. My legs is hurtin’ me something fearful.”
“The roll you get in the ‘spike’ is that ’ard you can’t eat it nicely with less’n a pint of water,” said the Carpenter, for my benefit. And, on asking him what the “spike” was, he answered, “The casual ward. It’s a cant word, you know.”
But what surprised me was that he should have the word “cant” in his vocabulary, a vocabulary that I found was no mean one before we parted.
I asked them what I might expect in the way of treatment, if we succeeded in getting into the Poplar Workhouse, and between them I was supplied with much information. Having taken a cold bath on entering, I would be given for supper six ounces of bread and “three parts of skilly.” “Three parts” means three-quarters of a pint, and “skilly” is a fluid concoction of three quarts of oatmeal stirred into three buckets and a half of hot water.
“Milk and sugar, I suppose, and a silver spoon?” I queried.
“No fear. Salt’s what you’ll get, an’ I’ve seen some places where you’d not get any spoon. ’Old ’er up an’ let ’er run down, that’s ’ow they do it.”
“You do get good skilly at ’Ackney,” said the Carter.
“Oh, wonderful skilly, that,” praised the Carpenter, and each looked eloquently at the other.
“Flour an’ water at St. George’s in the East,” said the Carter.
The Carpenter nodded. He had tried them all.
“Then what?” I demanded
And I was informed that I was sent directly to bed. “Call you at half after five in the mornin’, an’ you get up an’ take a ‘sluice’—if there’s any soap. Then breakfast, same as supper, three parts o’ skilly an’ a six-ounce loaf.”
“’Tisn’t always six ounces,” corrected the Carter.
“’Tisn’t, no; an’ often that sour you can ’ardly eat it. When first I started I couldn’t eat the skilly nor the bread, but now I can eat my own an’ another man’s portion.”
“I could eat three other men’s portions,” said the Carter. “I ’aven’t ’ad a bit this blessed day.”
“Then you’ve got to do your task, pick four pounds of oakum, or clean an’ scrub, or break ten to eleven hundredweight o’ stones. I don’t ’ave to break stones; I’m past sixty, you see. They’ll make you do it, though. You’re young an’ strong.”
“What I don’t like,” grumbled the Carter, “is to be locked up in a cell to pick oakum. It’s too much like prison.”
“But suppose, after you’ve had your night’s sleep, you refuse to pick oakum, or break stones, or do any work at all?” I asked.
“No fear you’ll refuse the second time; they’ll run you in,” answered the Carpenter. “Wouldn’t advise you to try it on, my lad.”
“Then comes dinner,” he went on. “Eight ounces of bread, one and a arf ounces of cheese, an’ cold water. Then you finish your task an’ ’ave supper, same as before, three parts o’ skilly any six ounces o’ bread. Then to bed, six o’clock, an’ next mornin’ you’re turned loose, provided you’ve finished your task.”
We had long since left Mile End Road, and after traversing a gloomy maze of narrow, winding streets, we came to Poplar Workhouse. On a low stone wall we spread our handkerchiefs, and each in his handkerchief put all his worldly possessions, with the exception of the “bit o’ baccy” down his sock. And then, as the last light was fading from the drab-coloured sky, the wind blowing cheerless and cold, we stood, with our pitiful little bundles in our hands, a forlorn group at the workhouse door.
Three working girls came along, and one looked pityingly at me; as she passed I followed her with my eyes, and she still looked pityingly back at me. The old men she did not notice. Dear Christ, she pitied me, young and vigorous and strong, but she had no pity for the two old men who stood by my side! She was a young woman, and I was a young man, and what vague sex promptings impelled her to pity me put her sentiment on the lowest plane. Pity for old men is an altruistic feeling, and besides, the workhouse door is the accustomed place for old men. So she showed no pity for them, only for me, who deserved it least or not at all. Not in honour do grey hairs go down to the grave in London Town.
On one side the door was a bell handle, on the other side a press button.
“Ring the bell,” said the Carter to me.
And just as I ordinarily would at anybody’s door, I pulled out the handle and rang a peal.
“Oh! Oh!” they cried in one terrified voice. “Not so ’ard!”
I let go, and they looked reproachfully at me, as though I had imperilled their chance for a bed and three parts of skilly. Nobody came. Luckily it was the wrong bell, and I felt better.
“Press the button,” I said to the Carpenter.
“No, no, wait a bit,” the Carter hurriedly interposed.
From all of which I drew the conclusion that a poorhouse porter, who commonly draws a yearly salary of from seven to nine pounds, is a very finicky and important personage, and cannot be treated too fastidiously by—paupers.
So we waited, ten times a decent interval, when the Carter stealthily advanced a timid forefinger to the button, and gave it the faintest, shortest possible push. I have looked at waiting men where life or death was in the issue; but anxious suspense showed less plainly on their faces than it showed on the faces of these two men as they waited on the coming of the porter.
He came. He barely looked at us. “Full up,” he said and shut the door.
“Another night of it,” groaned the Carpenter. In the dim light the Carter looked wan and grey.
Indiscriminate charity is vicious, say the professional philanthropists. Well, I resolved to be vicious.
“Come on; get your knife out and come here,” I said to the Carter, drawing him into a dark alley.
He glared at me in a frightened manner, and tried to draw back. Possibly he took me for a latter-day Jack-the-Ripper, with a penchant for elderly male paupers. Or he may have thought I was inveigling him into the commission of some desperate crime. Anyway, he was frightened.
It will be remembered, at the outset, that I sewed a pound inside my stoker’s singlet under the armpit. This was my emergency fund, and I was now called upon to use it for the first time.
Not until I had gone through the acts of a contortionist, and shown the round coin sewed in, did I succeed in getting the Carter’s help. Even then his hand was trembling so that I was afraid he would cut me instead of the stitches, and I was forced to take the knife away and do it myself. Out rolled the gold piece, a fortune in their hungry eyes; and away we stampeded for the nearest coffee-house.
Of course I had to explain to them that I was merely an investigator, a social student, seeking to find out how the other half lived. And at once they shut up like clams. I was not of their kind; my speech had changed, the tones of my voice were different, in short, I was a superior, and they were superbly class conscious.
“What will you have?” I asked, as the waiter came for the order.
“Two slices an’ a cup of tea,” meekly said the Carter.
“Two slices an’ a cup of tea,” meekly said the Carpenter.
Stop a moment, and consider the situation. Here were two men, invited by me into the coffee-house. They had seen my gold piece, and they could understand that I was no pauper. One had eaten a ha’penny roll that day, the other had eaten nothing. And they called for “two slices an’ a cup of tea!” Each man had given a tu’penny order. “Two slices,” by the way, means two slices of bread and butter.
This was the same degraded humility that had characterised their attitude toward the poorhouse porter. But I wouldn’t have it. Step by step I increased their order—eggs, rashers of bacon, more eggs, more bacon, more tea, more slices and so forth—they denying wistfully all the while that they cared for anything more, and devouring it ravenously as fast as it arrived.
“First cup o’ tea I’ve ’ad in a fortnight,” said the Carter.
“Wonderful tea, that,” said the Carpenter.
They each drank two pints of it, and I assure you that it was slops. It resembled tea less than lager beer resembles champagne. Nay, it was “water-bewitched,” and did not resemble tea at all.
It was curious, after the first shock, to notice the effect the food had on them. At first they were melancholy, and talked of the divers times they had contemplated suicide. The Carter, not a week before, had stood on the bridge and looked at the water, and pondered the question. Water, the Carpenter insisted with heat, was a bad route. He, for one, he knew, would struggle. A bullet was “’andier,” but how under the sun was he to get hold of a revolver? That was the rub.
They grew more cheerful as the hot “tea” soaked in, and talked more about themselves. The Carter had buried his wife and children, with the exception of one son, who grew to manhood and helped him in his little business. Then the thing happened. The son, a man of thirty-one, died of the smallpox. No sooner was this over than the father came down with fever and went to the hospital for three months. Then he was done for. He came out weak, debilitated, no strong young son to stand by him, his little business gone glimmering, and not a farthing. The thing had happened, and the game was up. No chance for an old man to start again. Friends all poor and unable to help. He had tried for work when they were putting up the stands for the first Coronation parade. “An’ I got fair sick of the answer: ‘No! no! no!’ It rang in my ears at night when I tried to sleep, always the same, ‘No! no! no!’” Only the past week he had answered an advertisement in Hackney, and on giving his age was told, “Oh, too old, too old by far.”
The Carpenter had been born in the army, where his father had served twenty-two years. Likewise, his two brothers had gone into the army; one, troop sergeant-major of the Seventh Hussars, dying in India after the Mutiny; the other, after nine years under Roberts in the East, had been lost in Egypt. The Carpenter had not gone into the army, so here he was, still on the planet.
“But ’ere, give me your ’and,” he said, ripping open his ragged shirt. “I’m fit for the anatomist, that’s all. I’m wastin’ away, sir, actually wastin’ away for want of food. Feel my ribs an’ you’ll see.”
I put my hand under his shirt and felt. The skin was stretched like parchment over the bones, and the sensation produced was for all the world like running one’s hand over a washboard.
“Seven years o’ bliss I ’ad,” he said. “A good missus and three bonnie lassies. But they all died. Scarlet fever took the girls inside a fortnight.”
“After this, sir,” said the Carter, indicating the spread, and desiring to turn the conversation into more cheerful channels; “after this, I wouldn’t be able to eat a workhouse breakfast in the morning.”
“Nor I,” agreed the Carpenter, and they fell to discussing belly delights and the fine dishes their respective wives had cooked in the old days.
“I’ve gone three days and never broke my fast,” said the Carter.
“And I, five,” his companion added, turning gloomy with the memory of it. “Five days once, with nothing on my stomach but a bit of orange peel, an’ outraged nature wouldn’t stand it, sir, an’ I near died. Sometimes, walkin’ the streets at night, I’ve ben that desperate I’ve made up my mind to win the horse or lose the saddle. You know what I mean, sir—to commit some big robbery. But when mornin’ come, there was I, too weak from ’unger an’ cold to ’arm a mouse.”
As their poor vitals warmed to the food, they began to expand and wax boastful, and to talk politics. I can only say that they talked politics as well as the average middle-class man, and a great deal better than some of the middle-class men I have heard. What surprised me was the hold they had on the world, its geography and peoples, and on recent and contemporaneous history. As I say, they were not fools, these two men. They were merely old, and their children had undutifully failed to grow up and give them a place by the fire.
One last incident, as I bade them good-bye on the corner, happy with a couple of shillings in their pockets and the certain prospect of a bed for the night. Lighting a cigarette, I was about to throw away the burning match when the Carter reached for it. I proffered him the box, but he said, “Never mind, won’t waste it, sir.” And while he lighted the cigarette I had given him, the Carpenter hurried with the filling of his pipe in order to have a go at the same match.
“It’s wrong to waste,” said he.
“Yes,” I said, but I was thinking of the wash-board ribs over which I had run my hand.
(End of Chapter 8 of The People of the Abyss)