Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XIX

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage


experience in st. giles's.

Deep-snow—Beggar in Belgravia wanted work—He said he was a Watchmaker— Gave his address—It was false—Met him months after—The same story—The same untruth— Children hired for the purpose of Begging—Cellar in St Giles's—Inquired for a Poor Woman and Child—Landlady told me of a Man almost starring in her back kitchen—He turned out to be an accomplished Swindler—Pot-boys—Caught him at last—Took him to Bow Street

Soon after taking up my residence in London, I met with many applications from street-beggars, with various tales of distress. I could not imagine that all these were fictitious, and found great difficulty in selecting the few objects on whom I could bestow my very moderate means of charity. One severe winter I resolved on making my own personal observations on the most promising cases which presented themselves.

The first general principle at which I arrived was, that—

In whatever part of London I might be, if I asked for the residence of a mendicant, it was pretty sure to be in a quarter very remote from the one in which he asked relief.

The next was, that—

Those mendicants who professed to want work and not charity, always belonged to trades in which it was scarcely possible to give them employment without trusting them with valuable property.

One example will suffice. During a very severe winter, the ground being covered with snow, whilst passing through Belgrave Square, a man accosted me, declaring that he could get no work, and that himself and family were starving.

I inquired his trade: he was a watchmaker. I asked for his address. I wrote down in my pocket-book his name, the street, and the number, and read it to him: it was in Clerkenwell. The next day I went there, made particular inquiries of the landlord, and was informed that no person of that name lodged in the house, or ever had lodged in it. I spoke to several respectable female lodgers also, who gave me the same information, as far as their knowledge went.

Several months after, I met the same professional mendicant in Portland Road. He did not recollect me, and again told the same story, and again gave me the same address. On this, I recalled to his memory that I had seen him before: that he had given me the same address; and that, having myself been there to inquire, I had found that his story was untrue. This statement had allowed him time to invent a new tale.

With well-feigned surprise he suddenly remembered that his wife, about three months ago, had told him that a strange gentleman had called, and had particularly inquired for him; that his wife, knowing that a writ was out against him, and that he was liable to be arrested, had denied that any person of his name resided in the house.

A few days after I went again to Clerkenwell, and received from the residents the answer they had given me three months before. I then went to one of the large shops for tools used by watchmakers near that locality, and having mentioned the subject to the master, he very readily asked amongst his shopmen whether they knew of such a person.

He assured me that, even allowing the man had not usually dealt at his shop, it was impossible that he should not have been several times there for some trifling article necessary in the hurry of his business. I then went to two or three other shops of a similar kind, and found that his name was entirely unknown. I therefore concluded that he was an impostor.

I will mention one other case, because it arose entirely out of an accident, and could not have been foreseen.

Living at that time much in society, I usually walked home from the hot rooms of an evening party wrapped in a stout cloak, even though it sometimes rained. On these occasions I was often placed in a most painful situation.

A half-clad miserable female, with an infant in her arms, and sometimes accompanied by another just able to walk, followed me through a drizzling rain to ask charity for her starving children.

I confess it was to me a most painful effort to resist such an application; yet my better reason informed me that in all probability these miserable children were hired for the purpose of exciting the feelings of the charitable. To give money to their heartless conductors could only be considered charitable, inasmuch as it might contribute to shorten the lives of their wretched victims.

I fear I gave wrongfully many a sixpence. I inquired into some cases, but without any result which could enable me to alter the opinion I have expressed. It was in one of these inquiries that the singular case I am now about to relate occurred.

In one of the densest of London fogs on a November night, or rather at between one and two o'clock in the morning, I was inquiring, in one of the most disreputable streets in London—George Street, St Giles's, long ago pulled down, enlarged, and rebuilt—for a female with an infant, who had represented herself to me as a miserable mother, and into the truth of whose story I was anxious to inquire.

I had been into several of the lowest lodging-houses, and into the cellars of that nest of misery and guilty and was unsuccessful in finding the object I sought.

Only a few of these abodes of wretchedness remained unvisited, when I inquired after the poor woman I was seeking of a somewhat decently clothed woman, who rented one of them.

She was the weekly tenant of one of these houses, and told me that on the preceding night a poor woman, with a child wrapped up in a miserably torn shawl, had applied for a lodging at about eleven o'clock. It was raining hard, and the poor woman possessed only twopence, and the price of a bed in the cellar was at this house threepence. The poor woman went away, remarking that she must then go and pawn the remnant of the shawl that covered her infant. She went, but returned no more.

The ancient weekly tenant then thought it necessary to defend, or rather to explain, her own apparently cruel conduct. I told her that it was unnecessary, and that even in my inmost thoughts I had not cast a reproach upon her. I told her that, from my knowledge of the misery suffered by poor people, I could readily imagine circumstances which might fully explain her conduct.

Her heart, however, was too full, so I sat down and listened to her tale. She was a widow advanced in years, having no relatives, or even friends, to assist her in her old age. She was the weekly tenant of a small house in that villanous street, and was entirely supported by letting out every foot of floor which could be made available for a human being to sleep upon. But the stern necessity which hung over her with its iron hand was this:—

Her weekly rent became due on each Monday, and if not paid on that night, the next morning would see her inexorably turned out of her only home, and deprived of her only means of sustaining life.

She was pleased at my attention to her sad tale, and, with a little encouragement, mentioned some of the experience she had had in her painful vocation.

"At this moment," she said, "there is lying on a rug in the back kitchen a young man, who has tasted nothing during the last two days but water from the pump on the opposite side of the street. He appears," she said, "to have been in better circumstances in other times."

It was now two o'clock in the morning, in the midst of a dense fog. I inquired whether it would be possible at this hour to get some soup or meat, or anything to sustain life. I went down into the close unventilated room, and beheld, stretched on a kind of thing like a couple of sacks, a pale, emaciated man, apparently about two or three and thirty years of age. I desired him to call on me the next morning; and, leaving my address with his landlady, left also a small sum of money to procure for him, if possible, present necessaries.

The next morning this half-starved man called at my house, in garments scarcely covering him. I inquired into his history, and he told me one probably as fabulous as that with which he afterwards deluded me, during my own short acquaintance with him.

I supplied him with a few clothes, shoes, and other things, just to replace the worn-out rags in which I had found him, and desired him in a day or two, when he got them into a serviceable form, to come to me, that I might see what his capacity was, and by what means he could best earn a subsistence.

It is unnecessary to enter into the long and artful stories he invented. The short result was this: that he had been a steward of a merchant ship—had been in the West Indies, and on other voyages; that having, on his return from some voyage, been reduced by illness to spend all his little earnings, and even to sell his clothes, and having no friends in London, he could not go amongst the merchant captains for want of decent clothes to appear in. This difficulty was partially removed by my giving him a suit. He called one day to tell me that he had succeeded in getting the situation of steward in a small West Indiaman, and that he did not like to sell or exchange a pair of top-boots which I had given him without asking my permission, which, of course, I gave. He told me that if he sold the boots, and purchased light, gaudy-coloured waistcoating, he might do a little profitable business with the niggers. He showed me the card of the shop in Monmouth Street at which he had commenced a negotiation about the sale of the boots, and another, in the same street, at which he proposed to purchase the waistcoats. He gave me the name of his ship, and of its captain, and the day of sailing. I flattered myself that he was now in a fair position to get a fresh start in life.

A few evenings after the ship was supposed to have sailed he called at my house, in the midst of heavy rain, apparently much agitated, and stated that, in raising their anchor, an accident had happened, by which the captain's leg had been broken.

He also said that, being sent up with the ship's boat to fetch the new captain, he could not resist calling at my house once more to express all his gratitude. I confess I entertained some suspicion about this story; but I said nothing.

The next morning I found that during his visit he had extracted something more from my female servants, upon whose sympathy he had worked, and who had previously contributed very liberally to his wants.

I now went to search for him in his old haunts, and with much difficulty ascertained that he had been lining riotously at some public-house in another quarter, and had been continually drunk.

My next step was to go to Bow Street and consult Sir Richard Birnie. Having explained the case, he consulted several of his most skilful officers; but none were acquainted with the man. Sir Richard remarked that he was a very adroit fellow, and that it was doubtful whether he had actually committed an act of swindling. I inquired what I should do in case I found him. The magistrate replied, "Bring him before me;" but he did not indicate the slightest expectation of my accomplishing that object.

Having thanked Sir Richard, I withdrew, determined, if the fellow were in London, I would catch him.

I now renewed my inquiries, which at first were ineffectual. One day it occurred to me that, as he had shown me two cards of shopkeepers in Monmouth Street, I might possibly, by cautious inquiry, get some clue to his whereabouts.

Although it was Sunday when this idea occurred, I immediately commenced at one end of the street to knock at each door, apologize to the landlord or landlady, and, shortly stating my case, to inquire if they could throw any light upon the subject. I went up one side of the street, and down part of the other, having at two places gained some traces of the fellow.

I will say, to the credit of the then residents, some of whom I intruded upon at their dinner hour, that I received in no one instance the slightest incivility, nor even coldness.

The most important information I obtained was, that a certain pot-boy (name and name of his public-house both unknown) would probably be able to give me some clue.

I next took my station at the northern end of Monmouth Street, and during three hours accosted every pot-boy who passed. At last I got hold of the right one, and so ultimately obtained the information I wanted.

The fellow was then arrested, and brought before Sir R. Birnie. The magistrate was much surprised that so clever a fellow should not have been known to any of his officers. After a long examination, I stated to the magistrate, that though I was very reluctant to appear before the public in such a case, yet that if he thought it a public duty, I should not shrink from it. Sir Richard remarked, that the inconvenience of my attending two or three days to prosecute would be very great—that the fellow was so accomplished an artist, that it was very doubtful if he could be convicted. He then added, that the best thing to be done for the man himself would be, if I could produce any new evidence, that he should be remanded for a week, to hear it, and then be discharged with a caution from the bench.

As my servants could give additional evidence, the fellow was remanded for a week, then duly lectured and discharged.

In the course of my efforts to inform myself of the real wants of those around me, I profited much by the experience of one or two friends, both most excellent and kind-hearted men, whose official duties rendered them far more conversant than myself with the subject. Mr. Walker and Mr. Broderip, both of them magistrates, were amongst my intimate friends. Mr. Walker, the author of "The Original," maintained that no one ever was actually starved in London, except through his own folly or fault.

The result of my own experience leads me to recommend all those who do not possess time and the requisite energies for personal inquiries, to place the means they wish to devote to charity in the hands of some sensible and kind-hearted magistrate.

I have been present, in the course of my life, at many cases brought before our London police magistrates. They possess an immense power of doing good—a power of making the law respected, not by its punishments, but by their own kindliness of manner and thoughtful consideration for the feelings of those brought into close contact with them.

Plain common sense, a kind heart, and, above all, the feelings of a thorough gentleman, are invaluable qualities in a magistrate. They give dignity to the court over which he presides, as well as an example which will be insensibly followed by all its officers. I have seen cases from which my own avocations have imperatively called me away, when I would gladly have remained to admire the kindness and the tact with which entangled questions have been gradually brought to a humane and just conclusion.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.