Sweat shop cartoon

In chapter 6, we find the origin of the expression “sweat shop” and get a glimpse of the miserable jobs, repetitive and requiring no imagination or intellect, that the people of the abyss were grateful to have. Tiny factories existed within single rooms of tenements that were largely still used as residences. These sweating dens, as the were called, were run by what were known as sweaters. The sweated were people, including children, who worked in such little factories for up to 14 hours a day, finishing products started elsewhere, such as clothing, shoes, saddles, and many other manufactures. To hold a job of that sort, the worker had to seem eager, as well as being fast and efficient at the work. You didn’t want to get old or worn down in any way that might compromise your ability to do the job. Countless unemployed were waiting in the wings to replace any who fell behind. And, of course, machinery, like the sewing machine, was quickly replacing huge chunks of the manual labor. Again, this was an employer’s job market, and those employers could be as particular and ruthless as they chose to be.


Sleeping Rough by Day

The people were grateful to have these jobs? Just when we decide that the work isn’t worth it, Jack London is shown the alternative. He’s taken to a park that is overflowing with homeless. They are a miserable, diseased lot of men and women of all ages taking up most of the horizontal surfaces within a fenced garden area. They lean against one another, they use each other as pillows as nearly every one of them sleeps. The park closes at night and no sleeping is allowed there after dark. The police were charged with the task of preventing the homeless from sleeping out of doors.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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5586386640_dfc831c32c_oIn chapter 5, we get the merest glimpse of the sort of strife that occurred among people living in such close quarters. Jack London describes a fight among primarily women that occurred in the yard behind his room as he went about his writing for the day. He’d been in the midst of expressing his views on the downward spiral individuals, and indeed, generations had experienced in “the abyss,” how poor nutrition and lack of hope had sapped the strength of a people he saw as essentially strong, capable human beings. The anger involved in the fight outside seemed to have little vitality, although blows were traded and rocks used as weapons. The author didn’t appear to be alarmed, perhaps because he knew that those at odds hadn’t had sufficient nutrition to do each other real harm.

Many of the poor, who were lucky to have a bit of meat maybe once a week and fresh vegetables somewhat more frequently, ate mostly carbohydrates in the form of potatoes, bread, and alcohol. One inexpensive and rather tasteless delivery system for carbohydrates was flour stirred into water to form a quick and easy liquid meal. That may not sound like much today, but it was not uncommon among the poor in the past.

The poor often ate food that those of a higher station would not. Trotters were sheep’s feet, with the fur blanched off. Mmmm—sounds delicious, all that pale, naked sheep skin! Broxy was the meat of diseased sheep, sold for less than that of the healthy animals. Those in service in a higher class household could apply for something called pig wash. Anything that had been served at the family table, had not been totally consumed, and was no longer wanted would be considered pig wash; a joint of meat that was going bad, moldy vegetables and bread—that sort of thing. Basically leftovers in a time in which little or nothing was refrigerated—certainly nothing belonging to the poor.

Again, many saw alcoholic drink as a reasonable alternative to eating meats and vegetables. Although knowledge of microbial life and the dangers it posed were still not well understood by the general public in 1902, the health risk from rotting food was. With alcoholic drink as food, at least people knew they wouldn’t get sick. The lesson of alcohol as something to purify had been well-learned during periods of mass death in the city from water-born illness like cholera. Before the modern sewer system was built, many of the people of London had taken the habit of putting gin in their water, even for children.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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FamilyIn chapter 4, Jack London found an affable fellow to room with. The author engaged him in conversation, and learned that the man was a hapless seaman, 22 years old, who had no aspirations for better work, starting a family, or truly anything other than earning the necessary funds to feed his drinking habit. If he didn’t want family, was it because he saw something like the image above in his mind’s eye when he imagined it? Despite seeming beaten down by crushing poverty and having no drive for anything better, the man was likable and intelligent and had a sense of humor. His father was a heavy drinker, and that seemed to be an acceptable course for the young man.

The only ones lower in station than this man in British society of the time were the “unfortunates,” those chronically unemployed or unemployable people who begged on the streets. Even his manner of speaking, his accent and the vernacular of his speech, which the author recorded with some attention to detail, no doubt marked him as one of the lowest class. That alone would have stood in his way had he tried to climb the ladder of success. Although perhaps not satisfied with his lot in life, the man seemed pleasantly resigned to it.


What will we do with the drunken sailor…

I am an alcoholic, 26 years sober. I emerged from a particularly sad state because of the love of family and friends, but most of all because there are survivors of alcoholism who know something about what it takes to live with such a disease and remain sober, and who were willing to help me. That’s primarily a result of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA for short. Before AA, virtually all alcoholics perished with or from the disease. If they did not die from an accident that mortally wounded, or ended up in an asylum for the mentally-ill, then they died a slow death from the over-exposure to alcohol that destroys internal organs, especially the liver. AA came into existence in 1935. It’s success rate is difficult to calculate, and has been placed as low as 3% and as high as 40%. I’ve heard slightly better statistics concerning substance abuse treatment, many forms of which incorporate the 12 step program of AA. In my life, despite the low numbers, I could see human beings surviving alcoholism. That helped me to have hope.

Perhaps the poor sot Jack London found did not see any alcoholics surviving their illness. In a time when physical comfort and an easy way to unload stress was badly needed by the down and out, and much of the available sustenance took the form of alcoholic beverages, the culture was saturated with substance abusers, the condition perhaps seeming to be quite natural and acceptable. Many saw alcoholic drink as a reasonable alternative to other foods.

Still, being a drunkard in that environment? I’d want to have my wits about me to more effectively compete for resources, jobs, and shelter, unless I merely had no hope. In that case, I suppose I might fear being fully conscious and feeling the low grade pain of hunger, the anxiety of thinking about finding shelter and my next meal. Perhaps a permanent buzz providing a certain level of anesthesia would seem a good idea.

If he had no hope, what, then, accounted for the man’s sense of humor and affable nature? I’ve found in my research into the Victorian era poor that they seem to have had a reservoir of vitality despite their predicament. I suspect that it is as simple as the fact that they only knew what they had, and what others of their kind had, and had had for generations. They had their place within a culture of dramatic inequality, but that was the way it had always been. Envy and coveting served little useful purpose in a situation in which one needed to focus what energy and faculty was available on the day to day grind of survival.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t much crime and occasional unrest. I’m merely surprised there was no more than there was. Perhaps lack of contrast plays a role as well, since these people did not wake up one morning after living most of their lives with 21st century standards to find themselves in such aching poverty. No—as Jack London points out eloquently, they got there through generations of moving in that direction.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing the tales of the Jack the Ripper Victims is that it gives me the opportunity to contrast what people had then with what we have now. Few more powerful means exist in communication than this sort of contrast to help break through the complacency many of us don so easily in modern times.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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poverty-childrenIn chapter 3, with the help of his detective acquaintance, Jack London found a refuge from the East End within the East End, a small lodging of better quality than most in the area that he could periodically visit to wash himself, keep warm, and assemble his text. That gives us an opportunity to learn something of the housing prospects for those living in the East End.

Most of the housing was of the single room variety. Whole families, sometimes more than one family lived in one room. I learned in research for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series that houses in many neighborhoods built early in the 19th century or earlier, those meant for a single family and having several rooms, were broken up into single room dwellings by the latter part of the century. The vast majority of those dwellings had no indoor plumbing. Indeed most had no room for bathing facilities. Privies were outdoor facilities, usually shared by several households. People availed themselves of public bathhouses when they had need to wash. These conditions persisted into the early 20th century, and generally had not improved by the time Jack London made his stay in the East End.

Over the course of the first half of the 1800s, London, already the largest city in the world, had tripled its population, and a similar level of growth continued for the rest of the century. The loss of labor positions during the industrial revolution had forced the unemployed out of the countryside and small towns into the big city. People came to London also from other parts of the world where there were similar problems finding work. By mid-century, more than 50% of the population of the city were born elsewhere. Landlords found it more profitable to split larger homes into tenements of one-room dwellings. Neighborhoods in which landlords took this approach soon became slums.  As more and more Landlords took up the practice, the slums spread like a blight through the old neighborhoods.  Large sections of London suffered severe squalid conditions, the worst being the East End. In 1888, the time of Jack the Ripper, there were approximately 800 people living per acre in Whitechapel. Those who could afford to do so fled to take up residence on the outskirts of the city. When eventually those neighborhoods suffered the blight, people fled further and the city kept growing, swallowing up many smaller towns.


Peabody Buildings

Some of the first housing projects (an American term) were installed in the city of London by American philanthropist, George Peabody. He was a banker and financier. He helped finance the Transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866, and created educational opportunities in various parts of the U.S. for blacks as well as whites, even before the American Civil War. Peabody loved London and the British people and decided to try to help alleviate their poverty. He bought up land in the worst rookeries of the city, razed the buildings to the ground, and put up tenements, usually 4 story structures arranged in boxes or “U” shapes with garden courts between. Access was through a locked gate. All adult tenants had a key to the gate. The only requirement for application for rental was that the one applying have employment.

Polly Nichols and her family lived in Peabody D Block, Duke Street in South London for several years. She no doubt counted herself extremely lucky.  Her flat had 3 rooms. There was a water closet shared by neighbors on the landing outside their front door, and bathing and laundry facilities on the roof. Some of those buildings still exist today. They were so loved that when, during WWII, some of the buildings were bombed, they were rebuilt and improved.  Those still in existence got electricity, some as late as the 1950s.

While writing about all this for the novel A BRUTAL CHILL IN AUGUST, about the life of Polly Nichols, and researching the Peabody Buildings, something nagged at me, something that seemed familiar about the Philanthropist, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what it was.


Peabody Demonstration School in 1925

Then it came to me. I’d hated my junior high school in Nashville, Tennessee, gave up on my education, and failed the eighth grade.  My parents enrolled me in a private school so I wouldn’t have to go back to the place I hated so much. The new one was a demonstration school, attached to an educational college, a college for teachers. The demonstration school existed so that student teachers could get experience teaching in a classroom. I was continuing my education at the Peabody Demonstration School attached to George Peabody college, a school started by the philanthropist. I was bowled over with the discovery. I suddenly felt embedded in the history I was trying to portray in the novel, and that gave me an odd feeling, somewhat thrilling. I did finally pass the eighth grade and was forgiven the lost year later by my high school in San Francisco.


Engraving by Gustave Doré

Jack London wasn’t so lucky as to land in one of the Peabody Buildings. He described the dwelling he found as opulent in comparison to the very few other accommodations available. For one thing, he wasn’t required to share the single room or his bed. He was used to open skies, dwellings more spacious, surrounded by at least a small plot of land, and he wondered at the willingness of Londoners to tolerate such condition. All the housing he’d encountered, he described as shoulder to shoulder, with but a tiny yard in back surrounded by a wall. Many of those “yards” were paved with stone, with no greenery, and virtually no trees to be seen throughout entire neighborhoods.

For the richest country in the world, huge chunks of their capital seemed a shameful slum.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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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

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Live Blog Part 1 by Alan M. Clark

Jack London (1876-1916)

Jack London (1876-1916)

In 1902, the year following the death of Queen Victoria , which of course ended the Victorian era, Jack London, disguised as one of the city’s poor, went to stay in the East End of London. He was there to get first hand experience of a place notorious for its crime, squalor, and human degradation. At the time, London was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. His book, The People of the Abyss, a piece of investigative journalism, is his account of that experience.

The squalid conditions of the East End are enumerated in the Preface, painting a picture that provides me with eye-witness confirmation of much of what I’ve learned in researching the environment for my Jack the Ripper Victims series of novels, including A Brutal Chill in August, soon to be released by Word Horde in August. By 1902, fourteen years after the end of the JTR killings, the East End of London had become more dangerous, more densely packed with humanity than it had been in 1888.

In the first chapter, Jack London describes the difficulty he had in finding help in merely setting up his investigative endeavor. His friends, colleagues, and even those he tried to engage professionally wanted nothing to do with his effort for fear that he headed toward certain doom. Finally, he found a private investigator in the East End who agreed to vouch for him if his body were to turn up. With that, Jack London bought second hand clothes of the ragged variety commonly worn by those in the area, and then disappeared into the East End.

At that point in his life, Jack London, born John Griffith Chaney, was a successful author. He’d done well selling his fiction to the growing magazine markets. For a quick biography of Jack London, try Wikipedia. Although an adventurous sort who’d been to sea, lived as a tramp, spent time in prison, been a laborer, and experienced his share of hardships in life, he currently wore nice clothing and could afford fine food and lodging.

He referred in the book to the difficulties Americans (I assume he means those identifiable as middle or upper class individuals) had visiting British and European cities without losing their shirts to the hordes who contrived assistance for the traveler and then expected gratuities for even the least effort. After shedding his finer clothes in favor of the common rags of the street, the unctuous bowing and scraping of the lower class and the poor, which of course was the vast majority of the population, ceased.

london_slumThe class system that still thrived in Europe largely also existed in the United States, yet was tempered by the fact that we did not have a noble class, ruling aristocrats that earned their station merely by the accident of their birth. The gap between the haves and have-nots in both America and Great Britain was large, but no more so than in London. The Industrial revolution had led to large-scale unemployment, much the way the Tech Revolution has done in America and elsewhere today. During the bulk of the 19th century, the city of London, like large American cities at present, suffered from overcrowding and large numbers of unemployed and homeless. Those with little were careful not to displease the upper classes. Quite the contrary. The poor, referred to as “the unfortunate,” and the lower class, when in the presence of their “betters,” often effusively praised those of a higher class and pretended to defer to them in all things for fear of losing employment, reputation, or any other form of possible favor. Frequently, life, liberty, and access to shelter and sustenance depended on behaving that way.

Surely as one who had been a laborer of humble beginnings, Jack London knew quite well the social mechanisms involved, but the sudden contrast with merely changing his clothes—his costume so to speak—was so sharp-edged that he couldn’t help but take notice in his text. Suddenly, the average person on the street was “real” with him. He was treated as a regular guy, trusted with honesty and welcomed warmly into conversation and confidence. As downtrodden as many of the denizens of the East End were, they also had a hardy lust for life they willingly shared with one another.

Makes me wonder how many within the upper classes knew that such warmth and good feeling existed among common people—that sense of camaraderie within the struggle for existence—and if they knew, what they thought about it.

When I was still living in Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up, I remember a middle-aged white fellow telling me that he’d gone to a church attended almost exclusively by black parishioners, and how surprised he was to see such a nice clean place, with all the people there happy and having a good time with one another. He probably didn’t realize that he sounded like a bigot to me.

Class barriers born of our strange need to stereotype still exist in the world today, ones meant to wall off the undesirable, having to do with anything from skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, to politics. Since the broader society often does not accept that such barriers should exist, silent conspiracies are required to build those walls. They are more a product of personal opinion, less formalized and institutionalized than that of the class system of the Victorian period.

I do not know if the middle-aged fellow talking about the black church was a bigot. Perhaps he was just woefully ignorant. But I’d had such things said to me by people who looked me in the eye after speaking as if to carefully assess my reaction, I believe to determine if I was with them; to see if I thought the same way. I don’t tend to react well to people trying to make others into “Other.” I have seen some people respond positively to that sort of crap. When I do see that, I always feel a little dirty and have the sense that a silent conspiracy has just picked up a new member or that existing members have made themselves known to one another.

When Jack London stayed in the East End, the haves and have-nots were segregated—many public places didn’t allow access to those below a certain station. An establishment, like a tavern or inn, often had separate sections for classes to keep those of a higher station from suffering the proximity of those of a lower station. By saying, “suffering,” I’m being sarcastic for effect. Inevitably, the less fortunate and the poor had developed their own culture and shared little of it with the upper classes.

Does that seem familiar? It’s a pattern of reaction that can be seen in numerous marginalized groups of minorities throughout the world. In the case of the London poor, though, they were in fact the majority.

I’m intrigued to read London’s honest words about it from so long ago.

Next post on Wednesday July 6, 2016 will deal with Chapter 2.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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