The View from the East End
The People of the Abyss
by Inspector Hopkins
I recently acquired one of those Amazon Kindle e-readers (more on that in a later article), and have loaded it down with a number of my old favourites. In addition to Dr. Watson’s writings, of course, I have become quite enamoured with the writings of Jack London, another of my favourite authors! For less than a dollar I was able to download something like 67 of his works. Among these, I found his documentary-style book, “The People of the Abyss”, describing life in the East End of London, to be particularly fascinating.
In it, London describes his desire to explore first-hand the realities of life in the East End. To accomplish this, he purchased some frayed old clothing and then went about dressed as a penniless, homeless, and unemployed seaman. His adventures occurred during August and September of 1902 (which coincided with Holmes’s dealings with “The Illustrious Client”), and he published his report the following year.
Jack London’s observations made him realize just how bad life really was in the East End at the turn of the century, a period which is described as “good times” in English history. In those days, a really nice room in the East End could be rented for 6s per week. London set up his headquarters in such a room, where he could venture forth dressed as one of the street people, and yet be able to safely return should circumstances warrant, and/or to write up his observations.
He mentions a report on the air quality which stated that something like 24 TONS of soot fell per week on every square mile throughout London. In the East End, entire families would eat, sleep, cook, and work in a single room roughly 8’ x 9’. Bathrooms and bathtubs were non-existent. Diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox were common, with the sick coughing almost constantly. Together with breathing the fumes from all the coal smoke, they had to breathe in all the other germs and exhalations of all the other dozens of tenants in the same house. Needless to say, good health was the exception rather than the rule. Age, disease, malnutrition, and injuries, in an era of no insurance, no social security, and no welfare assistance, added up to a death sentence for the unfortunate People of the Abyss.
London describes a typical East End family with 2 children living in a pair of rooms at a cost of 7s per week. They have no stove to cook on, but there is a gas ring in the fireplace which runs on a meter. Pennies are dropped in so that the gas will flow, but it oftentimes runs out before the meal is completely cooked. The wife works approximately 12 hours per day making cloth dress-skirts to earn 7s per dozen. The elder daughter works all day at menial labour for 1s 6d per week. The husband has to pay 1s 6d per week to belong to a union so that he could work (if work was available), thus canceling out his daughter’s earnings. The younger daughter doesn’t work. They often get up from the table “able and willing to eat more”, but more is not available. The inevitable result: slow starvation.
The penniless and homeless would sleep in public parks during the day, and roam the streets all night (referred to as “carrying the banner”) because it was illegal to sleep in public places at night, and the bobbies would keep them moving along.
Some relief was possibly available in the form of the Workhouse where some food and shelter for a night might be obtained. The homeless would have to stand in line for hours trying to get into a workhouse such as Whitechapel or Poplar. Although they were afraid of the treatment they might get from the police, if the weather was severe enough, people would be tempted to commit crimes so that they would be arrested and at least get shelter in the gaols. It took Jack London several attempts to gain admittance to the Whitechapel Workhouse, which he finally did. His vivid description of the time he spent there is particularly harrowing.
As Sherlockians, we spend so much time reading about all the Dukes, Earls, Barons, evil Colonels, and Lords and Ladies (including certain “gracious” ones), etc. who presented their cases to Sherlock Holmes, that little thought is given to the actual common people who scraped out an existence on crusts of bread and tried to raise families on a few shillings per week. Indeed, these may have included the “fishmonger” and “tide-waiter” that Watson referred to.
Unfortunately the People of the Abyss couldn’t afford a copy of Strand magazine to keep up with Holmes’s exploits . . . but most likely, they couldn’t read anyway.
Jack London’s description of life in London during the time that Holmes’s and Watson’s careers were at their peak is almost required reading for any serious Sherlockian! Check out the following link to peruse his fascinating book, complete with illustrations:
Until next time, and thanking you all very much for your attention, I remain indeed,
Past 2010 Columns