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 10. Old Age

The old age of the poor is in most cases a pathetic sight to contemplate. Even if the hoary hairs are a crown of glory, and kind and upright dealing has called out a response in time of need from children and friends, yet death and poverty often rob the old people of the support which is their due. And then there are the infirmities of old age, sickness and malaise, want of sight, want of hearing, crippled limbs, chilliness, and the weariness to which the grasshopper is a burden.

It is not wonderful if those who have never thought tidiness and cleanliness worth much effort, become in their rooms and in their persons a sight to shudder at. Old Mrs. Pollard, an old lady singularly destitute of relations or friends, belonged to this class.
It was a dirty house she lived in, kept by a slatternly landlady, red-faced and bare-armed, with a crowd of dirty children. No other species of house and landlady would long have extended a welcome to Mrs. Pollard. One groped up the smelly staircase, knocked at the rickety door with bits of paint off here and there, and heard a hoarse voice like a man's bidding one enter.

The atmosphere was enough to knock one down. "I can't open the windows, d'yer see?" said Mrs. Pollard once in her grating tones. "It ud let the fresh air in and give me cold. I ain't used to it." So to prevent all fear of it she had pasted up the window and stuck rags of the peculiar tint of brown that means unlimited, undisturbed dirt, into all cracks and crevices.

The room was smoking, and the smoke had found a resting place on the cobwebs that hung festooned from the ceiling. The pattern of the paper was unrecognisable, the mantelpiece grimed and black, and in the hearth lay heaped the ashes of a week ago, along with sundry scraps of various kinds which had perhaps better rest undescribed.

But on the round table, which stood in the middle of the room, was gathered a kind of abridged edition of the various elements of disorder and filth. There was in the middle an unscoured saucepan, and half pushed under its black and crusted side a plate, greasy with congealed gravy and pieces of bitten crusts, and in the middle of the plate was one of Mrs. Pollard's Sunday boots. Out of the boot protruded Mrs. Pollard's comb. Suffice it to say that the comb was more in need of cleansing than any article in the room, not excluding Mrs. Pollard herself. Of the more living horrors, we will not speak.

She sat in a rocking-chair, pushed against the foot of the bed. She had only one eye, and that was very sore. Her grizzled hair was wont to fall over it, and the condition of it made one feel that the comb must have rested a long time in the boot. Every wrinkle on her face was lined with dirt, and the silk handkerchief that was wound round her neck in lieu of a collar, and had once been white, had gradually acquired a hue closely resembling her dress, which was a dirty brown. On her head were the remnants of a cap.

"I'm glad to see you," she said. "It's a fine day, ain't it?" And then after a few moments we slid into the old strife. Would she not go into the workhouse infirmary? But promises of tea and sugar and visits, all persuasion and all argument, were lost on Mrs. Pollard. Her contention was on this plan:

"I'm going to stay here. I don't interfere with nobody, and nobody ain't a-going to interfere with me. I pays my rent and I can starve on a bit of crust sooner than go into that place. You think I should be a deal more comfortable there? Well, I shouldn't. They've rules and they bother you, and you can't do as you like. I like to make my cup of tea when I want it, and if I can't get a bit o'bread with it, well I can go without it. I'm not going into the infirmary. So my mind's made up." And as she said it the grizzled hair and the battered old cap shook defiantly. Then she would relax a little, and go into the state of her finances, conclusively proving that when her rent was paid, which it always was, she lived on minus 1s. 6d. a week.

She was found dead one morning. The dirty lined old face, cold and stiff on the pillow, with the strange dignity of death. The only moving thing in the room, the cat, was­unwonted sight­washing itself by the fire.

Yet Mrs. Pollard had held a good position in her day. It was drink as well as slovenliness that had brought her to this.

But if self-respect is kept up, in spite of weariness and aches and pains, the sight is delightful to the eyes.

Mrs. James was an old woman, whom to visit was to come away stimulated and ashamed. Her room was the tiny top back room in a very clean though poor house. But to go into it from a London street was almost like a glimpse of the country.

The little window was perfectly bright and shining and on a warm day wide open; on the ledge was a geranium and a musk that scented the small room. The furniture of the scantiest­a bed with a patchwork quilt and a neat valance, a chair with arms and a cane chair without, a tiny chest of drawers, and a cretonne cover upon the top with a little bit of lace edging, and on it lay Mrs. James's Bible, a textbook, and a china dog with large brown ears. She kept her other books wrapped up in paper in a drawer along with her mother's and father's and sister's memorial cards, a Christmas card or two, and her own marriage lines.

On the little mantelpiece there was a beautiful assortment of china ornaments with no speck of dust upon them, and the grate was shining black and well-swept. On the walls, dotted about at regular intervals, were photographs of her family with a great deal of frame and very little picture, and a bracket over her bed with a plaster infant Samuel, and a text, "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

The table in the window was covered with a shiny oilcloth cover. To see her at tea-time was a sight to raise one's ideals. For one would find Mrs. James sitting there alone having spread, not a tablecloth­for she hadn't one­but a clean white towel on the table, and her tea before her­teapot and cup and loaf and butter. No hugger mugger, no snatching of a cup of tea by the fire when she could. But she ate and drank quite alone, all in perfect order.

And she was eighty-four years old and lame and very rheumatic.

Sometimes, of course, suffering and want of bodily power make such things impossible even to the most cleanly and respectable. But in such a case they would for the most part sooner retire even into that rightly shunned place, the infirmary, sooner than live degrading themselves and injuring their neighbours by filth and disorder.

But blessings, like children, come home to roost. There was an old lady who, in her early years, had owned a small laundry. She had saved, but not as much as she should and might have done, owing partly to her great generosity to poorer neighbours.

But she managed to struggle on until she was attacked by cancer. And then unable to work, the infirmary seemed to stare her in the face­with a horror and torture about the thought of it, due to her former position.

But the seed she had sown bore her fruit. There was a young widow, who had formerly been an employee of hers, whom she had protected and sheltered against the brutalities of a bad husband, and to whom she had shown great kindness. They lost sight of each other; but the younger woman happened to hear of the elder's illness. She came to her and cried with compassion at her state, and with gratitude she thought of all she owed her, and from that day lived with her, worked for the support of both, dressed her wound night and morning, a daily more sickening task. There never was a harsh word on either side, and the younger would bring now a new plant, now a little picture, anything to please her old friend.

But suddenly this younger woman was taken ill with blood-poisoning and had to go into the infirmary. Again the old woman's good deeds of past time found her a friend. Her niece and god-daughter heard of her state, took her to live with her out of gratitude for her kindness to her as a child, and nursed her till she died.

The little shifts that the old people are sometimes put to are as pathetic as they are amusing. There was a delightful old couple who had been married fifty years, and had never a child. They struggled on, on their thrifty savings, until the year of the Mansion House Fund, when after some conflict with themselves, they applied for help, with the result that a pension was ultimately given them by other hands.

But there came one day a great difficulty. The old lady was deaf, and when pursuing her vocations of washing and cooking in the underground kitchen, she could not hear the door-bell, though it rang very loud and close. The old husband was crippled by an attack of gout, and lay suffering agonies, cheerfully, like the gallant old fellow he was, in their front bedroom, which was on the street level. He could hear the bell, but couldn't answer it; she could answer it but could neither hear it, nor his call.

He had a sound headpieces as well as a good heart; and he finally devised a clever plan.

A string was to be tied to his bedpost, and was then to pass under the door and downstairs into the kitchen. There the end was to be tied to a large tea-board, which stood on the dresser. When the bell rang, or he wanted her, he pulled the string, and the tea-board fell off the dresser onto the floor with a fearful din. She could hear that, and the plan was a great success.

It was a fair sample of the ingenuity of the old man. He enjoyed his own plan as much as he enjoyed every small pleasure that came in his way. A day in the country, a tea, were sources of delight for weeks. Especially if there were a dance after tea and he was inveigled into standing up with some old lady, and dancing with wonderful attention to time if not to step. His old wife sat by, and rallied him about it afterwards. And it was a joke of such fine quality that he still becomes speechless with laughter, till the tears stream down whenever it is referred to. He is a capable old man too, and insists on cooking the Sunday dinner, and won't let his wife have a finger in it.

It is a delightful thing to see a sunny old age; and it is wonderful how sunny it may be in spite of poverty. There is a little house where three old ladies live together, friends from youth­now widows­the youngest being seventy-four. None of their incomes exceed 7s. weekly, out of which they pay 2s.6d. rent apiece. But the times they have together would be envied by people of bigger incomes.
Often they all take tea together and talk. But now and then an excitement supervenes, which gives them food for fun for weeks together. The following was recounted to me:

"One night," said one old lady, "me and Mrs. Powis and Mrs. Runton had been having supper together and then we went to bed. Well, I'd only just fallen asleep, when, lor, there came a bang outside, and I heard somebody a-running down the stairs. There! My heart jumped into my mouth, as you may say. We'd been talking about robbers, silly old folks, wasn't we? And I said out loud, 'Lor,' I says, 'If that ain't a man got into the house.' So I got out of bed and lit my candle, I couldn't ardly old it for fright, and went across into Mrs. Runton's room. 'There's a man in the ouse,' I says to her, and she went all of a dither. 'Where is he?' she said; so I said, 'I believe he's in the kitchen.' We we went and called Mrs. Powis. And then we three old bodies, all in our night-caps, went creeping downstairs, and we thought we'd lock the kitchen door and then go and fetch the pleece. On the way down creak went the stairs and Mrs. Runton shrieked, 'Lor, he's a'coming,' and she pushed me so as I nearly fell, and then we listened, and there wasn't anyone moving. 'He's keeping quiet, you may depend on it,' said Mrs. Powis; and then we stood and listened at the kitchen door, and there come a great 'Miauw.' I thought I should a' jumped out of my skin. It was only a big black cat as had got in by the staircase window. I thought we never should have got upstairs again for laughing."

Old age when it is the closing of a religious life is often wonderfully peaceful and happy.

Two old folks, husband and wife, had been brought very low; their savings were exhausted, and though they had seventeen great-grandchildren, yet all the generations between had died off strangely and left them destitute of support. They were trying to get a pension; and one day when matters were at a very low ebb, they heard they had succeeded in getting in. The old people took the news very gratefully and happily, but with no surprise of joy; and the old man said to a friend, "Ah, yes I knew the Lord would provide for people that trusted Him."

Or again, what could be more beautiful in its victory of happiness, than the old age of a woman so crippled with rheumatism that she can hardly crawl from one of her small rooms to the other, and cannot even pass the time with knitting; who yet is so cheerful and so full of enjoyment and trust and peace that genuinely she could hardly be happier.

She is spirited too, and insists on getting out of bed whenever she is in any way able to sit up, and yet neither frets nor is depressed ifit becomes impossible.

She has her cat and her canary, and has a thirst for information which leads her to cut out interesting paragraphs as to the number of cats killed in Paris for human food and like statistics, and keeps them in a wooden box to show her visitors. But her spring of life is her Faith in God. She was talking one day of Faith-healing with intense interest, and sitting there helpless in her chair, her twisted crippled hands on her lap, she said:

"Yes--I've that faith in the Lord that I believe He's got the power to cure me right off now as I sit here if I ask Him. He could do it if I asked Him. I believe that. But I shouldn't like Him to do it if He didn't want to. I don't wish Him to if he don't want to."

But perhaps it is in the rank a little higher than the one we have been speaking of that its ills are the keenest if not the most obvious. The fact of poverty that necessitates the help of charity is a very bitter thing to those who have always striven to be "genteel."
And even a little below this, it is keenly felt.

There were two old sisters, the Miss Mortons, living together, whose story was a fine and a sad one. In youth they had attended a young ladies' academy, and learnt to do water-colour drawings of flowers which still hung framed in their room. Reverses had come upon them, and at their father's death the elder sister had gone into superior service to support the sickly mother who soon died, and sister. But a pain in her arm had attacked her after some years, and the end was amputation. Here a right charity stepped in and the two now live on a small but sufficient pension.

The room is beautifully kept by the one-armed sister, the other is too sickly to do more than move from bed to armchair and back again, her figure bowed and her face lined with pain. On good days she has sometimes an outing in a bath-chair. The face of the elder sister is as beautiful as it is pathetic. The features are delicately shaped, the eyes dark and sad with a look of patient, sweet endurance under well-marked eyebrows and glossy hair; her smile is wonderfully sweet, her voice very gentle. She will be desolate when the sickly sister dies. They have few friends and no relations left.

But perhaps the oddest and most touching utterances as to how poverty and charity come hard, was made by an old lady of very "genteel" origin indeed; who was ultimately reduced to receiving a weekly pension from charitable funds. Some little way in which the matter was arranged wounded her sensibilities, and she made a protest against it, ending:

"For though I am poor, I have the feelings of a lady. My ancestors came over the with Norman William."

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