What was St Judes like in the 1800s?
This district with its thickly clustering old houses, and rookeries, its dank courts and blind alleys, its 'dark entries' and back-yard shed dwellings, common lodging houses and tramps’ retreats, its thieves’ haunts and prize fighters’ quarters,long had a reputation as the abode of the utmost squalor and misery, abject poverty, personal improvidence, and social wrong. Bull Paunch Lane, the home of the dog fanciers, the prize fighters and their trainers, cag-mag butchers and loafers, has disappeared before the march of streets improvements, and the broad new thoroughfare of Lawford Street has swept away many a vile rookery and den of filth, and let in a wholesome current of air into streets in passing through which one was glad to keep a handkerchief to his mouth to escape the noxious fumes of vitiated air issuing from every court and alley and passage.
Eighteen years ago it must have contributed a large contingent to the extraordinary assemblage held one night in Major Tireman’s Chapel, St. Philips, when the Society of Friends’ Mission gave a 'Thieves Tea', at which between 300 and 400 accredited thieves and their associates were present, the police having been won over by the Quakers to give their promise not to enter Unity Street till the curious gathering had moved off.
All night orgies, which often preceded the morning prize fights, have disappeared with the suppression of these illustrations of the 'noble art' and the restriction of the hours of closing public houses.
In 1874, when Mr. Mark Whitwill laid the foundation stone of the British Workman in connection with the New Street Mission there, several houses had to be pulled down for the new building.
In getting rid of the tenants there were turned out of one small room a man and wife and four children, and fourteen fowls found dead beneath the bed, where the accumulated filth and feculent matter were more than a foot deep.
In another room there lived an old man and woman, who slept on sacks in two of the corners, and in a third these costermongers kept their donkey; while to the top room, the roof of which was in some places open to the sky, an old, blind man, nightly made his way to sleep on bare boards. Most of the close, pent-up, unventilated single rooms in St. Jude’s are in New Street, Wade Street, Great Ann Street, Pinnell Street, and Brick Street.
Compared with these, Great George Street is locally an aristocratic quarter, whose inhabitants consider they are falling in the social scale if they are by any means driven into some of the adjoining streets.
Here is a pitiable picture of a home in one of three cottages in a court between? West Street and St. Jude’s. The husband is a labourer at one of the largest works in the city, has been ill, but is now in full work at; 6 shillings per week. He has a wife and five children; the wife, a tailoress, and the only article of furniture left in the living room is her sewing machine.
She has been confined only six weeks ago, and is stated to be out looking for work. The cottage has two rooms, rent 2/- per week. Nearly every window pane is smashed in, and partially, protected with rags and paper; the front door has been battered in, and the panels falling outlet the draught direct into the living room. on the filthy floor of which, on some dirty rags, in a three inch deep soap packing box is the tiny baby, six weeks old; there is a little fire in the grate, and the children, with scarcely enough rags to cover their nakedness, are as black as the floor and walls.
They are in charge of an elder girl. What the bedroom can be like for this family of seven is not difficult to guess.
The two adjoining cottages, each occupied by labourers and their families of children are pictures of comfort. One labourer on the Quay earned about 18/- a week, but has little work in the summer. Yet the house is full of furniture, the walls covered with pictures, and the four children clean and tidy. 2/6 a week is paid for the two rooms, and the occupants have limed the outside and papered the inside themselves; and have a good fowl’s house well stocked opposite the door.
The wives of the two men join in a little mercantile enterprise of a curious kind. They buy American flour bags at large flour mills at the rate of 2/3 a dozen, and clean and sell them at 2d. each, to be made into under linen and sheets. They thus gain 3d. per dozen, but they also make them into articles of clothing for themselves and sell them, and we were shown sheets and pillow cases made of this material looking as good as new.
Climbing one of the dark, unventilated staircases we have described in a court off Little Ann Street, in a tenement house, we find occupying a top room, a man, wife, and four children, eldest 13 years, youngest 6 months. The husband supported the family by making butcher’s skewers, and he has to make a thousand small skewers for fifteen pence, out of which he finds the wood.
Our first visit to the elfin match-box makers is in a court off a thoroughfare, on the wall of which the intelligent visitor is informed 'This is Wade Street'. Climbing up the lofty staircase of a tenement house we enter a room rented at 1/2 per week by a labourer, his wife and three children. The man has been out of work for a long time, and the wife, as usual in these cases, has to struggle to earn the bread for the family.
The rough table and the floor covered with hundreds of pieces of slenderly-shaved wood used for the match boxes, show at once how she earns the money. She tells us she is able sometimes 'when her baby is good' to make three gross a day. She thus earns sixpence, but this is only achieved by the work of many hours..
But she is very industrious, and the room and single bed are clean compared with all the surrounding homes, and on the wall is a picture of a girl in a snowstorm.