Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 5. Recovery

The Brooks were to all appearance one of the class of really hopeless families.

One was generally met on the doorstep by a small child or two in clothing of the scantiest, often very dirty, but yet to a close observation showing signs of even unusual care in the way in which the hair was curled, and the poor pinafore made.

The little passage was narrow and dirty, the paper peeling in shreds off the wall, the floor unwashed; the little room inside was more wretched still, though, if one looked closely at the furniture, under the scattered mass of crockery not put away, clothes not folded up, and other articles, one saw that it was no nasty cheap furniture but good and solid. And the pictures on the walls, and the ornaments on the mantelpiece were all of a better kind, showing taste and refinement. But the floor was dirty, the bedclothes unwashed; the bed often unmade by the afternoon, if indeed poor Mrs. Brooks herself was not lying upon it. She, poor soul, was a pitiful sight, suffering from that curse of the poor--bad legs. There, on the bed on her worst days, on the chair if she was a little better, she would sit in the afternoons, now and then going into the little backroom, to work at the mangle, which work indeed was the cause of her present state.

The children would run in and out, with eager, hungry, clever little faces. There was Louey, aged twelve, with a shock head of hair; Joe, aged eleven, a keen, mischievous boy devoted to his mother; Polly, of the age of seven, a thin pathetic child who suffered from fits, and the baby, a most attractive child of three year old, with a shy pretty behaviour as any child could have. And coming in to stand for a minute or two, and go back to slave at the mangle--her mother standing by--was Jenny, a girl of sixteen, with black hair, and eyes like sloes, and lips and cheeks that had been full and red and very merry, but were now blanched by hunger and worry. Yet even now a little thing would make the girl laugh and forget for a while. She had the hardest life of the family so far as work went, for she went in the morning to scrub and make beds at a lodging house for gentlemen near, where she got her breakfast and dinner, and she came back to work at the mangle--sometimes till ten or eleven at night. For it was the proceeds of the mangle almost alone that fed the family. The rent was hardly more than covered by the eldest boy's earnings of 5s. a week, and the 4s. which the eldest girl, who was out at business, gave her mother.

They ought not to have been so badly off. The father of the family was a gasfitter by trade; and in the early years he had made three pounds a week, and they had lived like princes as she said. She, too, was of a much higher class in life. Her father had had a business, and had his death she had £200. She was well-educated also; had attended an academy for young ladies in her youth, and when they married she had been a Sunday School teacher, and he had sung in the church choir.

But about the time when her fourth child was born he had been thrown out of work. Her illness was long, and recovery slow; and the home became uncomfortable. "I can't tell you how it was," she said, "but he seemed so changed, and now for two years he's only done a week's work here and there; and so unkind he is to us all--can't give us a good word. And if Jenny, poor girl, wants a second cup of tea, he'll go on at her. I tell him it's a shame when she works so hard for all of us; but he doesn't seem to be at all like what a father should be to his children. He goes out early to look for work, and he comes in late, but I don't know how it is he never gets it." And after a while she admitted, "I don't believe after all he's looking for it. I don't believe he can be. He's got so out of the way for it."

There was no satisfaction to be got out of him. He was a venerable, worthy-looking man, with hair prematurely white, and respectful manner. He said he was looking for work every day and could find none; he couldn't explain the want of work at all. It was a dreadful thing for a man to have to see his wife and children want like that, let alone being hungry himself.

The only fate, and it seemed to be coming nearer every day, was the workhouse. Naturally enough the mother, who was a very affectionate mother, could not bear the thought of the separation from the children. She kept hoping that she might get better; that something might turn up for him.

It was no case for help. The only thing that could be done was to give Jenny a dress for Sundays, on the condition it should not be pawned, so that she should get a little life and change, and to send two of the children away for a country holiday that their health might not yet be broken by sheer want. How carefully the mother superintended the poor little outfit. She knew how to make them look nice.

It seemed as utterly heartless, as it was difficult, to go in and see them before one, their faces pinched with want, and know that they had only had a bit of bread since morning, and would get no more till a few halfpence came in from the mangling. But Mrs. Brooks was a woman to whom it was possible to talk fully and freely.

"Yes," she said, "I know what you mean. I understand. It wouldn't be right for you to help us for it would only be throwing money down a well. I don't know what we're to do. We must try a while longer. I know you'd help us, if you could rightly help us, so as to put us on our legs again."

Matters grew worse. Jenny's health began to suffer from the mangling. And at last Mrs. Brooks made up her mind to sell the mangle, and let the workhouse come if it must. I promised that if she did this I would send Jenny to be trained for good service; the two elder children who were earning could be taken by a married sister; and the younger ones must go to the workhouse, if it must be.

The moment had come. The mangle that cost £9 was sold for 30s. Jenny had departed to the Training Home, the other children only waited at home till the 30s. should be exhausted and the break up arrive.

In less than a week Brooks had got work. He worked for a month, and was thrown out by illness. He got well in a fortnight, and went to work again. That job lasted three months. After a week's interval he got into a permanent situation, and he gives his wife 23s. weekly. The pressure of absolute necessity had done what want and poor feeding could not do.

And the general welfare of the family may be gathered from his wife's overflowings when I saw her again:

"It's as different as possible," she said. "Why it seems so odd to have money coming in regularly, I hardly know what to do with it. I do know, though, don't I, well enough? He's so different to us all too--seems to take such an interest in us all again."

The secondary object of my visit was to ask when Jenny would go back to the Training Home. She had been doing well but had been invalided home with a bad shoulder. Mrs. Brooks' face glowed with an air of mystery--and then she spoke.

"Well, I won't deceive you," she said. "There's something stands in the way; it's a young man as stands in the way. And I never thought it was matrimony; but matrimony it is, and on Christmas Day."

She must have repeated that speech over to herself many times, but she went on with little diminution of eloquence:

"He's a steady young man, been seven years at his place, superior and genteel, a teetotaller, and regular Church-goer. He's supported for nine years a aged father as is a most respectable man, and has nine oles in his legs. He's drawn seventeen pounds out of the Bank of England to furnish with. There come a knock at the door, I go and open it--a easy chair! Another knock at the door--a marble-topped wash-hand-stand! And blinds he's bought too; the fashionable ones with a fringe, you know. He thinks everything of Jenny. And in the evening he's always here. That's his concertina on the bed; and in the evening he sits and plays us tunes. Jenny's full young; she's too young in a way. But he's so set on it, and so is she, that perhaps it wouldn't be for the best, if me and her father was to say No. Her father's so pleased. The wedding breakfast's going to be here. And he's going to paper this room fresh with his own hands--that's what he'll do. And I've planned to have a couple of fowls and a plum-pudding, and lemonade and ginger-beer as we're all teetotallers--and he's taken apartments over the way. I can't get to church with my bad legs, so I shall be able to see after the breakfast all the better. Jenny's out in the passage. I daresay she's listening to us. She was too shy to tell you herself."

So ends the little story--a cheering reminder of the power of recovery in a world where to the wearied, saddened spirit the law of degeneration seems to be paramount. And a warning too that sometimes it is the sternest hardships only that can stimulate the self-help which alone can save. It is hard to wait and see sternness at work; it is hard not to rush in and interfere with ill-timed mercies that are, in fact, mere cruelty--aids to the prolonging of a situation that cries out for an end. "He that is afraid of the operations of Nature," says Aurelius, "is a child." And even those who can be men for themselves find it hard not to be childish as to others' sufferings.

Not that the necessity to hold one's hand gives cover for hard-heartedness. It is only the heart that feels that can sufficiently understand the problem and know when to do and when not to do.

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