BLANK COURT; OR, LANDLORDS AND TENANTS.
Three ladies were standing, not long ago, in a poor and dingy court in London, when a group of dirty-faced urchins exclaimed, in a tone, partly of impudence and partly of fun: "What a lot o' landladies, this morning!"
The words set me thinking, for I felt that the boys' mirth was excited, not only by the number of landladies (or of ladies acting as such), but also, probably, by the contrast between these ladies and the landladies they usually saw. For the landlady to the London poor is too often a struggling, cheated, much-worried, long-suffering woman; soured by constant dealing with untrustworthy people; embittered by loss; a prey to the worst lodgers, whom she allows to fall into debt, and is afraid to turn out, lest she should lose the amount they owe her; without spirit or education to enable her to devise improvements, or capital to execute them—never able, in short, to use the power given her by her position to bring order into the lives of her tenants: being, indeed, too frequently entirely under their control. There is a numerous class of landladies worse even than this—bullying, violent, passionate, revengeful, and cowardly. They alternately cajole and threaten, but rarely intend to carry out either their promises or their threats. Severe without principle, weakly indulgent towards evil, given to lying and swearing, too covetous to be drunken, yet indulgent to any lodger who will "treat" them; their influence is incalculably mischievous.
Ought this to be the idea suggested by the word "landlady" to the poor of our cities? The old word "landlord" is a proud one to many an English gentleman, who holds dominion over the neat cottage, with its well-stocked garden; over the comfortable farm-house; over broad, sloping parks, and rich farm-lands. It is a delight to him to keep thus fair the part of the earth over which it has been given him to rule. And, as to his people, he would think it shameful to receive the rents from his well-managed estates in the country, year by year, without some slight recognition of his tenantry—at least on birthdays or at Christmas.
But where are the owners, or lords, or ladies, of most courts like that in which I stood with my two fellow-workers? Who holds dominion there? Who heads the tenants there? If any among the nobly born, or better educated, own them, do they bear the mark of their hands? And if they do not own them, might they not do so? There are in those courts as loyal English hearts as ever loved or reverenced the squire in the village, only they have been so forgotten. Dark under the level ground, in kitchens damp with foulest moisture, there they huddle in multitudes, and no one loves or raises them. It must not be thought that the over-worked clergymen and missionaries, heroic as they often are, can do all that might be done for them. They count their flock by thousands, and these people want watching one by one. The clergy have no control over these places, nor have they half the power of directing labor to useful ends, which those might have who owned the houses, and were constantly brought into direct contact with the people.
How this relation of landlord and tenant might be established in some of the lowest districts of London, and with what results, I am about to describe by relating what has been done in the last two years in Blank Court. I have already, in these pages, given an account of my former efforts to establish this relation on a healthy footing in another London court; of the details of my plan of action; and of its success. I am not, therefore, in what follows, putting forth anything new in its main idea, but am simply insisting on principles of the truth of which every day's experience only makes me the more deeply assured, and recounting the history of an attempt to spread those principles to a class still lower than that alluded to in my former paper.
It was near the end of 1869 that I first heard that a good many houses in Blank Court were to be disposed of. Eventually, in the course of that year, six ten-roomed houses were bought by the Countess of Ducie, and five more by another lady, and placed partially under my care. I was especially glad to obtain some influence here, as I knew this place to be one of the worst in Marylebone; its inhabitants were mainly costermongers and small hawkers, and were almost the poorest class of those amongst our population who have any settled home, the next grade below them being vagrants who sleep in common lodging-houses; and I knew that its moral standing was equally low. Its reputation had long been familiar to me; for when unruly and hopeless tenants were sent away from other houses in the district, I had often heard that they had gone to Blank Court, the tone in which it was said implying that they had now sunk to the lowest depths of degradation. A lawyer friend had also said to me, on hearing that it was proposed to buy houses there, "Blank Court! why, that is the place one is always noticing in the police reports for its rows."
Yet its outward appearance would not have led a casual observer to guess its real character. Blank Court is not far from Cavendish Square, and daily in the season, scores of carriages, with their gayly dressed occupants, pass the end of it. Should such look down it, they would little divine its inner life. Seen from the outside, and in the daytime, it is a quiet-looking place, the houses a moderate size, and the space between them tolerably wide. It has no roadway, but is nicely enough paved, and old furniture stands out for sale on the pavement, in front of the few shops.
But if any one had entered those houses with me two years ago, he would have seen enough to surprise and horrify him. In many of the houses the dustbins were utterly unapproachable, and cabbage-leaves, stale fish, and every sort of dirt were lying in the passages and on the stairs; in some the back kitchen had been used as a dustbin, but had not been emptied for years, and the dust filtered through into the front kitchens, which were the sole living and sleeping rooms of some families; in some, the kitchen stairs were many inches thick with dirt, which was so hardened that a shovel had to be used to get it off; in some there was hardly any water to be had; the wood was eaten away, and broken away; windows were smashed; and the rain was coming through the roofs. At night it was still worse; and during the first winter I had to collect the rents chiefly then, as the inhabitants, being principally costermongers, were out nearly all day, and they were afraid to entrust their rent to their neighbors. It was then that I saw the houses in their most dreadful aspect. I well remember wet, foggy, Monday nights, when I turned down the dingy court, past the brilliantly-lighted public-house at the corner, past the old furniture outside the shops, and dived into the dark, yawning, passage ways. The front doors stood open day and night, and as I felt my way down the kitchen stairs, broken, and rounded by the hardened mud upon them, the foul smells which the heavy, foggy air would not allow to rise, met me as I descended, and the plaster rattled down with a hollow sound as I groped along. It was truly appalling to think that there were human beings who lived habitually in such an atmosphere, with such surroundings. Sometimes I had to open the kitchen door myself, after knocking several times in vain, when a woman, quite drunk, would be lying on the floor on some black mass which served as a bed; sometimes, in answer to my knocks, a half-drunken man would swear, and thrust the rent-money out to me through a chink of the door, placing his foot against it, so as to prevent it from opening wide enough to admit me. Always it would be shut again without a light being offered to guide me up the pitch-dark stairs. Such was Blank Court in the winter of 1869. Truly, a wild, lawless, desolate little kingdom to come to rule over.
On what principles was I to rule these people? On the same that I had already tried, and tried with success, in other places, and which I may sum up as the two following: firstly, to demand a strict fulfillment of their duties to me,—one of the chief of which would be the punctual payment of rent; and secondly, to endeavor to be so unfailingly just and patient, that they should learn to trust the rule that was over them.
With regard to details, I would make a few improvements at once—such, for example, as the laying on of water and repairing of dustbins, but, for the most part, improvements should be made only by degrees, as the people became more capable of valuing and not abusing them. I would have the rooms distempered, and thoroughly cleansed, as they became vacant, and then they should be offered to the more cleanly of the tenants. I would have such repairs as were not immediately needed, used as a means of giving work to the men in times of distress. I would draft the occupants of the underground kitchens into the upstair rooms, and would ultimately convert the kitchens into bath-rooms and wash-houses. I would have the landlady's portion of the house—i. e. the stairs and passages—at once repaired and distempered, and they should be regularly scrubbed, and, as far as possible, made models of cleanliness, for I knew, from former experience, that the example of this would, in time, silently spread itself to the rooms themselves, and that payment for this work would give me some hold over the elder girls. I would collect savings personally, not trust to their being taken to distant banks or saving clubs. And finally, I knew that I should learn to feel these people as my friends, and so should instinctively feel the same respect for their privacy and their independence, and should treat them with the same There would be no interference, no entering their rooms uninvited, no offer of money or the necessaries of life. But when occasion presented itself, I should give them any help I could, such as I might offer without insult to other friends—sympathy in their distresses; advice, help, and counsel in their difficulties; introductions that might be of use to them; means of education; visits to the country; a lent book when not able to work; a bunch of flowers brought on purpose; an invitation to any entertainment, in a room built at the back of my own house, which would be likely to give them pleasure. I am convinced that one of the evils of much that is done for the poor springs from the want of delicacy felt, and courtesy shown, towards them, and that we cannot beneficially help them in any spirit different to that, in which we help those who are better off. The help may differ in amount, because their needs are greater. It should not differ in kind.that I should show towards any other personal friends.
To sum up: my endeavors in ruling these people should be to maintain perfect strictness in our business relations, perfect respectfulness in our personal relations.
These principles of government and plans of action were not theoretical: they had not been thought out in the study, but had been worked out in the course of practical dealings with individual cases. And though I am able thus to formulate them, I want it understood that they are essentially living, that they are not mere dead rules, but principles the application of which is varying from day to day. I can say, for example, "It is our plan to keep some repairs as employment for men out of work;" but it needs the true instinct to apply this plan beneficially—the time to give the work, its kind, its amount, above all the mode of offering it, have to be felt out fresh on each fresh occasion, and the circumstances and characters vary so that each case is new.
The practical carrying out in Blank Court of these various plans of action involved, as may readily be imagined, a great deal of personal supervision. Hence the "lot o' landladies" which excited the attention of the street boys. Several ladies, whether owners of houses or not, have worked there energetically with me since the property was bought; and when I use the word "we," I would have it understood to apply to these ladies and myself: it is often upon them that much of the detail of the work devolves.
But to proceed with the history of Blank Court. Our first step on obtaining possession was to call on all the inhabitants to establish our claim to receive rents. We accepted or refused the people as tenants, made their acquaintance, and learnt all they might be disposed to tell us about themselves and their families. We came upon strange scenes sometimes. In one room a handsome, black, tangle-haired, ragged boy and girl, of about nine and ten, with wild dark eyes, were always to be found, sometimes squatting near the fire, watching a great black pot, sometimes amusing themselves with cutting paper into strips with scissors. It was difficult to extract a word: the money and dirty rent-book were generally pushed to us in silence. No grown person was ever to be seen. For months I never saw these children in the open air. Often they would lie in bed all day long; and I believe they were too ignorant and indolent to care to leave the house except at night, when the boy, as we afterwards found, would creep like a cat along the roofs of the outbuildings to steal lumps of coal from a neighboring shed.
At one room we had to call again and again, always finding the door locked. At last, after weeks of vain effort, I found the woman who owned the room at home. She was sitting on the floor at tea with another woman, the tea being served on an inverted hamper. I sat down on an opposite hamper, which was the only other piece of furniture in the room, and told her I was sorry that I had never been able to make her acquaintance before. To which she replied, with rather a grand air and a merry twinkle in her eye, that she had been "unavoidably absent:" in other words, some weeks in prison,—not a rare occurrence for her.
When we set about our repairs and alterations, there was much that was discouraging. The better class of people in the court were hopeless of any permanent improvement. When one of the tenants of the shops saw that we were sending workmen into the empty rooms, he said considerately, "I'll tell you what it is, Miss, it'll cost you a lot o' money to repair them places, and it's no good. The women's 'eads 'll be druv through the door panels again in no time, and the place is good enough for such cattle as them there." But we were not to be deterred.
On the other hand, we were not to be hurried in our action by threats. These were not wanting. For no sooner did the tenants see the workmen about than they seemed to think that if they only clamored enough they would get their own rooms put to rights. Nothing had been done for years. Now, they thought, was their opportunity. More than one woman locked me in her room with her, the better to rave and storm. She would shake the rent in her pocket to tempt me with the sound of the money, and roar out "that never a farthing of it would she pay till her grate was set," or her floor was mended, as the case might be. Perfect silence would make her voice drop lower and lower, until at last she would stop, wondering that no violent answers were hurled back at her, and a pause would ensue. I felt that promises would be little believed in, and, besides, I wished to feel free to do as much, and only as much, as seemed best to me; so that my plan was to trust to my deeds to speak for themselves, and inspire confidence as time went on. In such a pause, therefore, I once said to a handsome, gypsy-like Irishwoman, "How long have you lived here?" "More than four years," she replied, her voice swelling again at the remembrance of her wrongs; "and always was a good tenant, and paid my way, and never a thing done! And my grate, etc., etc., etc." "And how long have I had the houses?" "Well, I suppose since Monday week," in a gruff but somewhat mollified tone. "Very well, Mrs. L——, just think over quietly what has been done in the houses since then; and if you like to leave and think you can suit yourself better, I am glad you should make yourself comfortable. Meantime, of course, while you stay, you pay rent. I will call for it this evening if it doesn't suit you to pay now. Good morning."
Almost immediately after the purchase of the houses, we had the accumulated refuse of years carted away, the pavement in the yards and front areas were repaired, dustbins cleared, the drains put in order, and water supplied. Such improvements as these are tolerably unspoilable, but for any of a more destructible nature it was better to wait. The importance of advancing slowly, and of gaining some hold over the people as a necessary accompaniment to any real improvement in their dwellings, was perpetually apparent. Their habits were so degraded that we had to work a change in these before they would make any proper use of the improved surroundings we were prepared to give them. We had locks torn off, windows broken, drains stopped, dustbins misused in every possible manner, even pipes broken, and water-taps wrenched away. This was sometimes the result of carelessness, and deeply-rooted habit of dirt and untidiness; sometimes the damage was willful. Our remedy was to watch the right moment for furnishing these appliances, to persevere in supplying them, and to get the people by degrees to work with us for their preservation. I have learned to know that people are ashamed to abuse a place they find cared for. They will add dirt to dirt till a place is pestilential, but the more they find done for it, the more they will respect it, till at last order and cleanliness prevail. It is this feeling of theirs, coupled with the fact that they do not like those whom they have learned to love, and whose standard is higher than their own, to see things which would grieve them, which has enabled us to accomplish nearly every reform of outward things that we have achieved; so that the surest way to have any place kept clean is to go through it often yourself. First I go at regular times, and then they clean to receive me, and have the pleasure of preparing for me, and seeing my satisfaction; then I go at unexpected times to raise them to the power of having it always clean.
Our plan of removing the inhabitants of the miserable underground kitchens to rooms in the upper parts of the houses, did not, strange as it may seem, meet with any approbation at first. They had been so long in the semi-darkness that they felt it an effort to move. One woman, in particular, I remember, pleaded hard with me to let her stop, saying, "My bits of things won't look anything if you bring them to the light." By degrees, however, we effected the change.
I mentioned in my summary of our plan of operations, our custom of using some of the necessary, yet not immediately wanted repairs, as a means of affording work to the tenants in slack times. I lay great stress upon this. Though the men are not mechanics, there are many rough jobs of plastering, distempering, glazing, or sweeping away and removing rubbish which they can do. When, therefore, a tenant is out of work, instead of reducing his energy by any gifts of money, we simply, whenever the funds at our disposal allow it, employ him in restoring and purifying the houses. And what a difference five shillings worth of work in a bad week will make to a family! The father, instead of idling listlessly at the corner of the street, sets busily and happily to work, prepares the whitewash, mends the plaster, distempers the room; the wife bethinks herself of having a turn-out of musty corners or drawers, untouched, maybe, for months, of cleaning her windows, perhaps even of putting up a clean blind; and thus a sense of decency, the hope of beginning afresh and doing better, comes like new life into the home.
The same cheering and encouraging sort of influence, though in a less degree, is exercised by our plan of having a little band of scrubbers. We have each passage scrubbed twice a week by one of the elder girls. The sixpence thus earned is a stimulus, and they often take an extreme interest in the work itself. One little girl was so proud of her first cleaning that she stood two hours watching her passage lest the boys, whom she considered as the natural enemies of order and cleanliness, should spoil it before I came to see it. And one woman remarked to her neighbor how nice the stairs looked. "They haven't been cleaned," she added, "since ever I came into this house." She had been there six years! The effect of these clean passages frequently spreads to the rooms, as the dark line of demarkation between the cleaned passage and the still dirty room arouses the attention, and begins to trouble the minds, of its inmates.
Gradually, then, these various modes of dealing with our little realm began to tell. Gradually the people began to trust us; and gradually the houses were improved. The sense of quiet power and sympathy soon made itself felt, and less and less was there any sign of rudeness or violence towards ourselves. Even before the first winter was over many a one would hurry to light us up the stairs, and instead of my having the rent-book and money thrust to me through the half-open door, and being kept from possible entrance by a firmly planted foot, my reception would be, "Oh, can't you come in, Miss, and sit down for a bit?" Little by little the houses were renovated, the grates reset, the holes in the floors repaired, the cracking, dirty plaster replaced by a clean smooth surface, the heaps of rubbish removed, and we progressed towards order.
Amongst the many benefits which the possession of the houses enables us to confer on the people, perhaps one of the most important is our power of saving them from neighbors who would render their lives miserable. It is a most merciful thing to protect the poor from the pain of living in the next room to drunken, disorderly people. "I am dying," said an old woman to me the other day: "I wish you would put me where I can't hear S—— beating his wife. Her screams are awful. And B——, too, he do come in so drunk. Let me go over the way to No. 30." Our success depends on duly arranging the inmates: not too many children in any one house, so as to overcrowd it; not too few, so as to overcrowd another; not two bad people side by side, or they drink together; not a terribly bad person beside a very respectable one.
Occasionally we come upon people whose lives are so good and sincere, it is only by such services and the sense of our friendship, that we can help them at all; in all important things they do not need our teaching, while we may learn much from them. In one of the underground kitchens, I found an old woman who had been living there for twelve years. In spite of every obstacle, and in the midst of such surroundings as I have described, she was spotlessly clean and had done the very best for the wretched place: the broken bars of the grate she had bound in their places with little bits of wire; the great rents in the wall, one of which went right through to the open air, she had stuffed with rags, the jagged ends of which she had actually taken the trouble to trim neatly with scissors; she had papered the walls, and as they were so damp that the paste was perpetually losing its hold, she patiently fastened up the long strips of paper fresh every week. With all this work for it she had naturally become so fond of her little home that it nearly broke her heart to think of leaving it. So we determined not to tear her away from it. After a time, however, the force of our former arguments told upon her, and suddenly, one day, she volunteered to move. She has kept her new room, as one would expect, in a state of neatness and order that is quite perfect. She has since been growing less and less able to work, but she has always paid her rent, she has never asked for help, nor would she even accept the small boon of my lending her some money until she could give the due notice which would enable her to draw out her own savings from the bank where she had placed them. She has lived thirty-five years in London, a single woman depending entirely on herself, without parish allowance or other aid, and has had strength to keep up her standard of cleanliness and independence, and a spirit of patient trustfulness that is unfailing. Her life on earth is nearly over; she is now confined to her bed, for the most part quite alone, without even a bell to summon aid: yet there she lies in her snow-white bed as quietly as a little child settling itself to sleep, talking sometimes with a little pride of her long life's work, sometimes with tenderness of her old days in Ireland long ago, and saying gently that she does not wish to be better; she wants to go "home." Even in the extremity of her loneliness only a small mind could pity her. It is a life to watch with reverence and admiration.
We can rarely speak of the depths of the hearts we learn to know or the lives we see in the course of our work. The people are our friends. But sometimes, when such as this old woman seem to have passed beyond us all and to have entered into a quiet we cannot break, we may just glance at a life which, in its simplicity and faithfulness, might make the best of us ashamed.
Since we began our work in the court there has been a marked improvement in many of the people. I may just say, as examples, that the passionate Irish tenant who locked me into her room did not leave us, but has settled down happily, and has shown me more than one act of confidence and kindly feeling; that the old woman whose "bits o' things" would look nothing if brought upstairs, after having been long in a light room, has now asked for a larger one, having freed herself from a debt which cramped her resources, and has begun to save; and that the two dark-eyed children were ultimately won over to trust in us. Their mother—a most degraded woman—when she at last appeared, proved to be living a very disreputable life, and the only hope for the children was to get them away from her influence. My first triumph was in getting the girl to exert herself enough to become one of our scrubbers, and finally, a year ago, we were able to persuade her to go to a little industrial school in the country, where she has since been joined by a sister of hers, who turned up subsequently to my first visits. Unfortunately the mother absconded, taking the boy with her, while we were still hoping to get him sent away to a training-school also; but, even in the short time that he remained with us, I had got some hold over him. By dint of making an agreement with him that I would myself fetch him at eight one morning, and help him to prepare his toilet so as to be fit for the nearest ragged school, I got him to begin learning; and when once the ice was broken, he went frequently of his own accord.
Opportunities for helping people at some important crisis of their lives not unfrequently present themselves. For instance, soon after we came into possession of Blank Court, I once or twice received rent from a young girl, whom I generally found sitting sadly in a nearly bare room, holding in her arms a little baby. She looked so young that I thought at first the baby must be her sister, but it turned out to be her own child. Her husband seemed a mere boy, and was, in fact, only nineteen. One day, when the rent was not forthcoming, I learnt their story. It appeared that an aunt had promised the lad a sovereign to set him up as a costermonger, if he married the girl; but he had not bargained for prepayment, and the promise was not fulfilled. This marriage-portion, which was to have procured them a stock of herrings, had never been forthcoming. This seemed an occasion upon which a small loan might be of the utmost use. I accordingly lent them the much-needed sovereign (which they have since punctually repaid), and thus saved the young couple from being driven to the workhouse, and gave them a small start in life.
To show further the various opportunities afforded us by our footing with the people, I will describe one of our weekly collections of savings.
On Saturday evenings, about eight o'clock, the tenants know that we are to be found in the "club room" (one of the former shops of the court, and now used by us for a men's club, and for boys' and girls' evening classes, as well as for this purpose of collecting savings), and that they may come to us there if they like, either for business or a friendly chat.
Picture a low, rather long room, one of my assistants and myself sitting in state, with pen and ink and bags for money, at a deal table under a flaring gas jet; the door, which leads straight into the court, standing wide open. A bright red blind, drawn down over the broad window, prevents the passers-by from gazing in there, but, round the open door, there are gathered a set of wild, dirty faces looking in upon us. Such a semicircle they make, as the strong gas-light falls upon them! They are mostly children with disheveled hair, and ragged, uncared-for clothes; but, above them, now and then one sees the haggard face of a woman hurrying to make her Saturday evening purchases, or the vacant stare of some half-drunken man. The grown-up people who stop to look in are usually strangers, for those who know us generally come in to us. "Well! they've give it this time, anyhow," one woman will exclaim, sitting down on a bench near us, so engrossed in the question of whether she obtains a parish allowance that she thinks "they" can mean no one but the Board of Guardians, and "it" nothing but the much-desired allowance. "Yes, I thought I'd come in and tell you," she will go on; "I went up Tuesday—" And then will follow the whole story.
"Well, and how do you find yourself, Miss?" a big Irish laborer in a flannel jacket will say, entering afterwards; "I just come in to say I shall be knocked off Monday; finished our job across the park: and if so be there's any little thing in whitewashing to do, why, I'll be glad to do it."
"Presently," we reply, nodding to a thin, slight woman at the door. She has not spoken, but we know the meaning of that beseeching look. She wants us to go up and get her husband's rent from him before he goes out to spend more of it in drink.
The eager, watchful eyes of one of our little scrubbers next attract attention; there she stands, with her savings' card in her hand, waiting till we enter the sixpence she has earned from us during the week. "How much have I got?" she says, eying the written sixpences with delight, "because mother says, please, I'm to draw out next Saturday; she's going to buy me a pair of boots."
"Take two shillings on the card and four shillings rent," a proudly happy woman will say, as she lays down a piece of bright gold, a rare sight this in the court, but her husband has been in regular work for some little time.
"Please, Miss," says another woman, "will you see and do something for Jane? She's that masterful since her father died, I can't do nothing with her, and she'll do no good in this court. Do see and get her a place somewheres away."
A man will enter now: "I'll leave you my rent to-night, Miss, instead o' Monday, please; it'll be safer with you than with me."
A pale woman comes next, in great sorrow. Her husband, she tells us, has been arrested without cause. We believe this to be true; the man has always paid his way honestly, worked industriously, and lived decently. So my assistant goes round to the police-station at once to bail him, while I remain to collect the savings. "Did he seem grateful?" I say to her on her return. "He took it very quietly," is her answer; "he seemed to feel it quite natural that we should help him."
Such are some of the scenes on our Savings' evenings; such some of the services we are called upon to render; such the kind of footing we are on with our tenants. An evening such as this assuredly shows that our footing has somewhat changed since those spent in Blank Court during the first winter.
My readers will not imagine that I mean to imply that there are not still depths of evil remaining in Blank Court. It would be impossible for such a place as I described it as being originally, to be raised in two years to a satisfactory condition. But, what I do contend is, that we have worked some very real reforms, and seen some very real results. I feel that it is in a very great degree a question of time, and that, now that we have got hold of the hearts of the people, the court is sure to improve steadily. It will pay as good a percentage to its owners and will benefit its tenants as much as any of the other properties under my management have done. This court contains two out of eight properties on which the same plans have been tried, and all of them are increasingly prosperous. The first two were purchased by Mr. Ruskin.
It appears to me then to be proved by practical experience, that when we can induce the rich to undertake the duties of landlord in poor neighborhoods, and insure a sufficient amount of the wise, personal supervision of educated and sympathetic people acting as their representatives, we achieve results which are not attainable in any other way. It is true that there are Dwellings' Improvement Societies, and the good these societies do is incalculable; I should be the last to underrate it. But it is almost impossible that any society could do much for such places as Blank Court, because it is there not so much a question of dealing with houses alone, as of dealing with houses in connection with their influence on the character and habits of the people who inhabit them. If any society had come there and put those houses into a state of perfect repair at once, it would have been of little use, because its work would have been undone again by the bad habits and carelessness of the people. If improvements were made on a large scale, and the people remained untouched, all would soon return to its former condition. You cannot deal with the people and their houses separately. The principle on which the whole work rests, is that the inhabitants and their surroundings must be improved together. It has never yet failed to succeed.
Finally, I would call upon those who may possess cottage property in large towns, to consider the immense power they thus hold in their hands, and the large influence for good they may exercise by the wise use of that power. When they have to delegate it to others, let them take care to whom they commit it; and let them beware lest, through the widely prevailing system of sub-letting, this power ultimately abide with those who have neither the will nor the knowledge which would enable them to use it beneficially;—with such as the London landladies described at the beginning of this paper. The management of details will seldom remain with the large owners, but they may choose trustworthy representatives, and retain at least as much control over their tenants, and as much interest in them, as is done by good landlords in the country.
And I would ask those who do not hold such property to consider whether they might not, by possessing themselves of some, confer lasting benefits on their poorer neighbors?
In these pages I have dwelt mainly on the way our management affects the people, as I have given elsewhere my experiences as to financial matters and details of practical management. But I may here urge one thing on those about to undertake to deal with such property, the extreme importance of enforcing the punctual payment of rents. This principle is a vital one. Firstly, because it strikes one blow at the credit system, that curse of the poor; secondly, because it prevents large losses from bad debts, and prevents the tenant from believing that he will be suffered to remain, whatever his conduct may be, resting that belief on his knowledge of the large sum that would be lost were he turned out; and, thirdly, because the mere fact that the man is kept up to his duty is a help to him, and increases his self-respect and hope of doing better.
I would also say to those who, in the carrying out of such an undertaking, are brought into immediate contact with the tenants, that its success will depend most of all on their giving sympathy to the tenants, and awakening confidence in them; but it will depend also in a great degree on their power of bestowing concentrated attention on small details.
For the work is one of detail. Looking back over the years as they pass, one sees a progress that is not small; but day after day the work is one of such small things, that if one did not look beyond and through them they would be trying. Locks to be mended, notices to be served, the missing shilling of the week's rent to be called for three or four times, petty quarrels to be settled, small rebukes to be spoken, the same remonstrances to be made again and again.
But it is on these things and their faithful execution that the life of the whole matter depends, and by which steady progress is insured. It is the small things of the world that color the lives of those around us, and it is on persistent efforts to reform these that progress depends; and we may rest assured that they who see with greater eyes than ours have a due estimate of the service, and that if we did but perceive the mighty principles underlying these tiny things we should rather feel awed that we are entrusted with them at all, than scornful and impatient that they are no larger. What are we that we should ask for more than that God should let us work for Him among the tangible things which He created to be fair, and the human spirits which He redeemed to be pure? From time to time He lifts a veil and shows us, even while we struggle with imperfections here below, that towards which we are working—shows us how, by governing and ordering the tangible things one by one, we may make of this earth a fair dwelling-place. And far better still, how by cherishing human beings He will let us help Him in His work of building up temples meet for Him to dwell in—faint images of that best temple of all, which He promised that He would raise up on the third day, though men might destroy it.
- Macmillan's Magazine for July, 1869.
- Cottage Property in London.—Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1866.
Organized Work amongst the Poor.—Macmillan's Magazine, July, 1869.