THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 2

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Take note of the haze in the air–that’s not just because this is an old photo.

In chapter 2, Jack London went to visit his detective acquaintance, nicknamed Johnny Upright, who lived in one of the best neighborhoods—that isn’t saying much—within the East End. The man wasn’t home, but London met the detective’s wife, daughters, and a woman servant. Playing the part of a lower class individual of the area and dressed as he was in rags, the family tried to turn the writer away. Finally he let on without explaining that he was bringing a financial opportunity to the man of the house. Still, he wasn’t admitted to the home, and sat out in the rain until the servant girl came for him. The wife apologized, and sat him in the dining room to await the return of her husband.

Knowing what I do about the hardships of life in London of the period, the author’s description of the daughters is poignant.

  …pretty girls they were in their Sunday dresses; withal it was the certain weak and delicate prettiness which characterizes the Cockney lasses, a prettiness which is no more than a promise with no grip on time, and doomed to fade quickly away like the color from a sunset sky.

Perhaps Johnny Upright was doing well enough financially that his daughters didn’t have to work, but I doubt it.  Assuming they were wed and began families of their own, they would probably have to do some sort of work to help support their husbands and the children on the way.  Eventually perhaps even those children, while still children, would have to work as well. If Johnny Upright’s daughters became spinsters, he would certainly expect them to pull their weight with some sort of earning occupation.

Employment for the lower classes was fraught with risk of one sort or another. After reading extensively about the various sorts of occupations available for the poor in a time of vast unemployment, an employer’s market so to speak, I wrote this in my upcoming novel A Brutal Chill in August about the difficulties Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols had trying to find work as a young adult:

Polly and Bernice Godwin had worked at home as fur pullers on and off since 1853. The piece work involved pulling the loose undercoat from rabbit pelts so that the furs would not shed the down once they were used to line garments. The action created a myriad of tiny broken hair fibers that floated freely in the air. The girls could not avoid breathing the particles into their lungs. The undercoat that didn’t float away, they saved in bags to sell for a small sum per pound.

At fourteen years of age, they both wanted to find better work. Bernice had her father’s blessing to look for a job.

“You’ll stay home, do your piece work, and keep house,” Papa had told Polly. Even so, she believed she might persuade him if she found work. With heavy competition for labor, positions rarely became available.

“I’ve heard the Ryan paper factory needs a rag sorter,” Polly told Bernice one day. “Tomorrow, I’ll go try to get the position.”

Bernice’s eyes became large and she shook her head. “The rags are collected from all over the city. They don’t care as some come from the worst places. The vermin, the lice, the disease—you shouldn’t want that.”

Polly reconsidered.

While they looked into jobs at the Jessup cotton spinning mill, Polly spoke to her brother about the possibility. “Eddie told me the boss there pushes his workers to move fast to meet quotas,” she told Bernice, “and the steam-powered machinery snatches a limb or a life at least once a month.”

Bernice took a job at the white-lead works for a short time. One day she returned home with a haunted look about her. “I quit. I found out the girl I replaced wasted away and went mad. Then I learned that happens to most of the girls as works there—five already this year.”

The rate of accidents, poisoning, and disease, and the stress upon the body of the different types of work available had all become discouraging factors. Polly imagined industry as a hungry giant that preferred to feed on the young and tender, chewing or biting off a limb, crushing a head or chest, setting a poisoned trap to catch the inexperienced off guard, leaving many unfortunates ill, maimed, or dead.

London-1800sthe-thames-below-westminster-claude-monet1And of course the environment of London itself was a danger. Above we have a photograph taken in London during the 19th century, and a painting by Claude Monet created in 1871. Literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Londoners were killed by the pollution in the air, water, and food. The air was filled with the chemicals and particulates that results from burning coal. New industries popped up everywhere to support the burgeoning population and to exploit the cheap labor market. Small factories occupied converted tenements or houses that once held families in residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, only a part of such a tenement or house was occupied by industry while the rest still functioned as a residence for individuals or families. With an increase in the use of chemistry, and with little knowledge of the damage many chemicals inflicted upon the bodies of those exposed to them, industries, such as match making, destroyed the lives of their workers and those living within close proximity to production. Those who suffered often did so without knowing why until it was too late. Matchmaking is only one example of the industrial poisoning of Londoners. Deadly chemicals were everywhere. They were used in medicines and in prepared foods as preservatives. Madness abounded, if not as a result of the emotional hardships of life, then from chemical damage to the brain. The piece work, fur pulling, as portrayed in the excerpt I provided from A Brutal Chill in August, caused pulmonary diseases.

Things were getting better, though.  Child labor was prohibited below the age of ten in 1878. Compulsory education for children ages 5 to 10 began in 1880, and the government actually started funding that in 1891. By 1918, 16 years after Jack London stayed in the East End, the compulsory education age was expanded to include children 5 to 14 years of age.

Yes, knowing what I do about labor in London of the time, the author’s description of Johnny Upright’s daughters’ fragile, transient beauty is indeed poignant.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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