Breaking stones for roads—Illustrated London News, 1868

In chapter 18, Jack London addressed wages. Most of the chapter deals with comparing the wages received by individuals for certain labor with the cost of living: food, shelter, heating, etc. Without going into the detail he did, I cannot give a good sense of his discovery beyond saying what so much of these posts have established: Many Londoners of the period were dirt poor. He cites a statistic that claims that 1,292,737 people supporting families in London in 1902 did so on 21 shillings or less per week?

The basic problem was too many people and too few jobs. The buyer’s market for labor drove down wages.

So, one might say to the unskilled laborer, “Gain a skill.” Many did, and still had so much competition that they could not find work. One might then say to that person, “Become an entrepreneur and invent something, create a product, or offer a service that’s new and different.”

One of the reasons that some people are unskilled laborers is that they don’t have the imagination to create and invent, nor do we expect that everyone should be an entrepreneur. Would that even be possible for the roughly 1.3 million people supporting a family in London in 1902 on 21 shillings per week or less?

1.3 million entrepreneurs?

Well, many were entrepreneurs to some extent or another. Many scavenged, which helped keep the city from falling into a ruin of refuse and raw sewage. But most people were not going to invent anything worthwhile, or think up a service not already in existence. Gaining a skill and joining the ranks of those employed using such a skill or offering services that countless others already offered, an individual would still be entering a market in which the pay for the skill or service had already been whittled extremely low by the heavy competition for jobs.

The class system in existence also helped to keep the poor in place. Manner of speech and vernacular marked the lower classes in a way that made climbing the rungs of financial success more difficult. A pauper’s invention might more likely be stolen than find investors. Higher class individuals were accustomed to purchasing the services of lower class individuals for menial tasks only. The lower class person offering a service that required substantial pay was looked upon suspiciously as one trying to engage in commerce above their station.

In America, during the middle to late Victorian period, we’d had tracts of land that were not owned and where an enterprising person might stake a claim and make a run at success. Virtually all land in England had been long since claimed. If one wanted to start a business or a farm, one would have to rent the land and what structures were needed, and then compete in a market, the profit margins of which had been whittled down by intense competition.

None of these things are absolutes. The class system was fraying at the edges. And of course a clever person, assuming one had an excellent education and good social skills could find ways around these difficulties. That wasn’t going to happen for all 1.3 million of the people supporting their families on 21 shillings a week in London of 1902. There just weren’t enough magical bootstraps to go around.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon


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factoryIn chapter 17, entitled “Efficiency,” Jack London spoke of those who had employment as if they were mechanisms—gears perhaps— within the great machine of the British economy. He pointed out the obvious about employment; that those who were not designed well enough to perform the functions of their jobs were quickly demoted to labor more appropriate for their abilities. This was worth pointing out because the process was accelerated and the expectations placed on the employee were so much greater in London of a time when so many were looking for work. Such high unemployment and such deep poverty existed that many would willingly make sacrifices to their own happiness to gain employment, perhaps by taking less pay, working longer hours, taking on extra duty, or even compromising their principles. Like gears within a machine, the working man had to keep his sprockets (the numerous engaging projections on a gear) perfectly shaped and spaced or he would be replaced. Worse yet, in the buyer’s market of employment at the time, the human mechanisms within the greater machine had to find a way to do their work with increasing efficiency for the employer or they’d be considered obsolete. Then the question for the gears was, “How can I prevent my sprockets from becoming worn down?”

All hope was lost for workers who grew ill or became physically or mentally handicapped in any way. Because the relief system in England at the time provided so little, such severe privation would follow loss of employment that death would not come soon enough to be merciful. Instead, a lingering descent awaited the infirm pauper. Statistics of the time told Jack London that 1 out of every 4 people in England died on what little public charity provided in either the workhouse, hospital, or asylum.

factory3Jack London also speaks of workers in very human terms, telling of the plights of several individuals who were harmed on the job or some other way and lost everything. Employers frequently provided next to nothing to help out those injured on the job. One man lost both legs in an accident at work due to negligence on the part of his employer. In compensation, the man was given 25£, which is equivalent to about 12 weeks wages for a low-skilled laborer. He spent 9£ on a wheelchair. If the burden of care wasn’t assumed by family or friends, the injured person withered away and died, whether in or out of the workhouse, hospital, or asylum. That is exactly the sort of end that faced many who could not find steady work, especially the old or sick.

I believe in having a social safety net. When I hear conservatives in the United States talking about doing away with it, I think of the plight of the poor during the Industrial revolution, and the old throughout history. When I hear conservatives talking about privatizing the safety net—because they believe that industry manages efficiency better than does government—I have to wonder if they’ve thought much about the fact that those setting up the system would keep at least one eye on making a profit.

How are we doing in the U.S. with privatized prisons? Some of the contracts private companies have with states like Arizona require a 100% occupancy or compensation must be paid for unused beds. I don’t truly know if the compensation represents enough of an incentive to the state to fill the beds through the process of arrest and conviction, but it remains an inefficiency that the company running the prison wants addressed to their benefit. What does that suggest about the priorities of private companies doing public work? I’m not suggesting that wanting to make a profit is evil. I’m saying that it doesn’t necessarily dovetail with keeping the best interests of human beings in mind.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Cartoon from PUNCH 1861

In chapter 16, titled “Property Versus Person,” Jack London explored how the courts provided stiffer punishments for offenses involving damage or theft to property than they did for offenses against human beings, including violence. He gave examples of both types of cases from different English police courts, and placed them side by side for comparison. Consistently, one can see that the penalties were worse for crimes involving property, while man’s brutality to man got a comparatively light punishment.

A man caught sleeping rough got 14 days hard labor, while one who beat his wife severely was fined 1£, 8 shillings, which at the time amounted to about a week and a half of wages for a poor, low-skilled worker. A coal miner attacked a man, knocked him down, beat him about the head and body, then picked up a pit prop (a wooden beam used to prop up a mine ceiling) and continued the beating with that. He was fined 1£, while a 62 year old man was sentenced to 4 months hard labor for poaching rabbits. Poaching of this type was usually hunting for food on large tracts of land owned by a wealthy, often titled individual.

Jack London’s opinion was that the sentences chosen by the magistrates involved in the cases indicated that the wealthy had representation in local government and law enforcement, but the poor largely did not. He wasn’t alone in those sentiments. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Great Britain fed a growing resentment among ordinary human beings, just as we see happening today in the United States. Would it take throwing much of a generation of young Englishmen on the fire of WWI to relieve the pressure in England? I’m not suggesting that was the plan, but the war took so many men off the streets of Great Britain—just under a million Englishmen lost their lives—and innumerable jobs were created to support the war effort. Did it alleviate to some extent the problems of poverty and homelessness?

What does it take here in the U.S. to relieve the pressure we experience when there are too many people looking for work and too few jobs? During the Great Depression, the federal government poured money back into the pockets of the people by funding work projects, most of them needed infrastructure improvements. Laws were passed to place regulations on financial institutions to help avoid the problems that led to the depression.

Many of those regulations were weakened in the 1990s. During the Great Recession of 2008, the congress had a tug of war between austerity and liberal spending policy. I believe the austerity measures that prevailed slowed the recovery.

Many Americans were angry after the crash of the U.S. economy with the Great Recession  when none of the major players in the credit default swaps debacle went to prison. Instead, some of the financial institutions involved were bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars at the tax-payers’ expense during a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown into a gulf. The banks got bailed out, but the little guy, hurt by the financial institution that gambled and lost, did not. Again, we seem to have much better representation in government for the haves than the have-nots.  For the gamble taken by financial firms, many people world-wide suffered tremendously.

The anger and resentment have not gone away.

In the United States today, we have Presidential election coming soon. One of the candidates, of a nationalistic bent, preys upon that resentment to gain power. He uses illegal immigrants and a particular religious group as scapegoats, and lies about the dangers in the world to increase fear as he works to divide and conquer the American electorate.

I see very creepy parallels with the time of terrible depression in Europe following WWI when several dangerous nationalists used similar tactics to seize power. We, in America, have not just gone through a blood bath like that of WWI. Our economy is slowly recovering. I have hope that we are smart enough to not buy what our nationalistic candidate is selling.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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The sinking of the Spanish armada.

In chapter 15, after his adventure hopping, Jack London stayed with a husband and wife in a poor section of Maidstone. He described the woman as The Sea Wife, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem by that name, and suggested that she and her husband were perfect examples of the hearty stock of human beings—the English—that had colonized territories the world over. Some interpret the metaphor of The Sea Wife established in Kipling’s poem as being specifically Queen Victoria, but since she wasn’t the only queen to oversee the expansion of the empire, I interpret The Sea Wife as being England herself.

Strangely, though Jack London told us the man’s name, Thomas Mugridge, he never gave us the woman’s name. She represented for him a reflection of England, the mother of a great sea-going people. He learned that, indeed, Mrs. Thomas Mugridge had children in different parts of the world, some in service to Great Britain. In 1902 the British Empire was referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”  That had previously been said of the Spanish Empire. But the loss of the Spanish Armada in 1588 during an attempted invasion of England was such a set-back in Spain’s efforts toward global expansion that they never regained their former glory, and Great Britain became the dominant naval force in the world.

Jack London spoke of The Sea Wife’s offspring—the English people—as stern, capable, indefatigable, creative, and good, and he lamented the condition in which he found them. He wondered if they would go on as a great people or if they were ultimately doomed to failure and the abyss.

I find the author’s view of the poor of London as expressed in the book complicated, but perhaps only because I am used to people holding back their opinions for fear that others will come down on them for being unkind or unthinking. In earlier chapters, he had said, “And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the abyss to marry.” Now this is in a context of his describing that most had no hope of anything better in a time when too many human being vied for too few jobs and resources. With the horrors he’d seen in the East End he was of the opinion that no child should be born into such conditions.  I believe that is why he made the statement, though that isn’t exactly clear from the writing.

In chapter 14, in reference to the vagrants who traveled by the thousands to pick crops in Kent, he referred to the poor in this way: “And out they come, obedient to the call, which is the call of their bellies and of the lingering dregs of the adventure-lust still in them. Slums, stews, and the ghetto pour them forth, and the festering contents of slum, stews, and ghetto are diminished. Yet they overrun the country like an army of ghouls, and the country does not want them. They are out of place, as they drag their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways, they resemble some vile spawn from underground. Their very presence, the fact of their existence, is an outrage to the fresh, bright sun and the green and growing things. The clean, upstanding trees cry shame upon them and their withered crookedness, and their rottenness is a slimy desecration of the sweetness and purity of nature.”

PaupersThat’s certainly not nice. But was it true?  It was what Jack London saw. Did it mean that he had revulsion and contempt for them, that he thought of them as malevolent and unredeemable, or did it mean that he was horrified by what had become of human beings, creatures he held in high regard? Throughout the narrative, I’ve found expressions of his outrage at what he’s found, but I’ve also found great compassion. Just because I might walk across the street to avoid a filthy street person who is ranting at passersby, doesn’t mean I hate that person and wish harm upon them.

In the last few stanza of  Kipling’s “The Sea Wife” I find a bitter tone.

Her hearth is wide to every wind
That makes the white ash spin;
And tide and tide and ‘tween the tides
Her sons go out and in;

(Out with great mirth that do desire
Hazard of trackless ways,
In with content to wait their watch
And warm before the blaze);

And some return by failing light,
And some in waking dream,
For she hears the heels of the dripping ghosts
That ride the rough roof-beam.

Home, they come home from all the ports,
The living and the dead;
The good wife’s sons come home again
For her blessing on their head!

Of course interpretations of the poem will and should vary. I hear the poet suggesting the English people have been mere fodder for the building of the British Empire, and that the good and noble men who went forth into the world to do England’s work remained stalwart to a fault.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Hopping3In Chapter 14, Jack London headed out of the city with a cobbler friend to see if they could earn a living wage as seasonal farm workers. They went to the Maidstone district in Kent, southeast of London to pick hops.

We’ve had migrant farmer workers in the U.S. just about as long as there have been crops. The work doesn’t pay well today and apparently it didn’t pay well in England in 1902 either. The poor of London needed work though, and tens of thousands made the trek to the fields to earn a paltry sum.

Fourteen years earlier, A few days before she was murdered, Catherine Eddowes, Jack the Ripper’s 4th victim, went with her common law husband, John Kelly, into the Maidstone district to go “hopping.” They worked for three days, but were broke again as soon as they returned to London, all their funds having gone to provide food and shelter.

American president George W. Bush referred to the picking of crops done by migrant farm workers, and much of the other work done by those in the U.S. illegally, as “work that Americans don’t want to do,” as if the pay for such work had nothing to do with it. Most of the migrant workers in the U.S. come from Central America. Most of them cross the border illegally to do the work. Being in the U.S. illegally, they are essentially in hiding, and if they are mistreated, they have no redress through our courts without revealing their illegal status and risking deportation. Such migrant workers seem to endure this situation, and the poverty wages that go along with it, because they still earn better than they can at jobs in their homelands. Along with the agricultural labor, those coming into the U.S. Illegally also work in construction, hospitality, food service, and production. Because they want to stay in the U.S. and remain hidden, the majority of them do very good work. Their existence in the U.S. drives wages down in various sectors of the economy which makes many Americans angry.

I believe it’s wrong that those in the U.S. illegally have become an under class that lacks the rights of the regular citizenry. Some American citizens, those who need scapegoats, many of them bigots, hate those in the U.S. illegally. Yet they should look more closely at their own leaders’ responsibilities in this issue. I think those here illegally deserve our sympathy and help because our government has allowed them to be lured here where they are vulnerable to abuse.

The majority of the leaders in the United States do nothing to end the situation because the existence of such a compliant work force benefits the agricultural concerns and industries that use them. I believe those concerns and industries lobby for nothing to be done, but I also think there are leaders who believe that having a ready scapegoat to gin up anger and fear is useful.

Perhaps I’m just cynical about it.

Hopping2In Kent, Jack London and his cobbler friend found that they could not earn a living wage picking hops. With the numbers of poor coming from London to do the work, it was a buyer’s market for those looking to hire pickers, which kept the wages very low. Jack London and his friend worked out their earnings to just over 1 penny per hour. They could not afford both food and shelter on those wages.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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LondonDocksIn Chapter 13, Jack London concentrated on the plight of one individual among the countless unfortunates within the East End of the city of London. Dan Cullen was a lumper by trade. Lumpers unload the cargo from ships. In America, we would call them dock workers or stevedores. Dan Cullen could read and write (self-taught), and because of that, his fellow dock workers called upon him to help them organize against the master lumpers and the system that kept wages at poverty levels.

While writing my first Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Of Thimble and Threat, I learned something about lumpers from an article written in 1850 by Henry Mayhew that appeared in Morning Chronicle. In it, Mayhew interviewed a lumper about the politics of the profession. The man he interviewed didn’t give his name and expressed several times during the course of the conversation that he feared that if he was identified after telling his tale, he’d become a marked man and have no work.

A gang of lumpers were organized by a master lumper through a local pub. Sometimes the master lumper was the publican who ran the pub. If the master lumper didn’t run the pub, he was paying for the right to organize there. To work for a master lumper, one was obliged to make purchases of beer from the pub through which he organized. Therefore, some of one’s pay went to supporting the pub. The master lumper would not give work to one who didn’t adhere to that obligation. Plenty of men not associated with any particular lumper or pub stood by to take whatever jobs became available, so the master lumper could always replace a man who didn’t fall in line.

At one point the man Mayhew interviewed referred to a week in which he’d earned 20 shillings, but his take home pay after buying the required drink in the pub was only 3 shillings. He said that he’d payed as much as 25 shillings on drink in a week at a cost 3 times that of what the man on the street would pay in the same pub. He said, “I must spend my money in drink some way,” which gives me the impression that he was either not capable of drinking all that he was paying for or that, with an eye toward paying his bills, he had to somehow find a way to set aside the funds required to buy all that drink. He said he had a wife and children, and that they barely got by. His wife sewed for a living.

He said that a master lumper who ran the pub through which he organized his dock workers could make his fortune within a few short years. If a lumper gave offense in any manner, if he failed to meet his obligations in any way, he would be refused work.

DockWorkersThat was 52 years before Jack London looked into the life of Dan Cullen, but no doubt the fundamentals of the master lumper system were still in place. Yet by 1902 socialists had begun to have some success in organizing workers. Cullen had joined their ranks. Unions were on the rise. Dan Cullen used his literacy to help his fellow dock workers to organize. For that, he was refused work and fell on hard times. Fellow dock workers could not associated with him for fear of losing their livelihoods. After ten years of little or no work, Dan Cullen died a lonely death in a squalid 7’x8’ room.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Coronation of Edward VII

In Chapter 12, we see a possible reason why the homeless were so harassed. Perhaps there was a desire to drive them out of the city, at least temporarily, because they would not look good during the coronation of King Edward which occurred while Jack London was in the city of London. I don’t have any real evidence that such a tactic was use, but the homeless had no where to go anyway, and did indeed make an ugly backdrop to the coronation. The contrast with the pomp, the power, and the wealth on parade in Trafalgar Square and surrounding streets was stark, and had to have provoked strong reaction against a class system that was really just beginning to crumble at the edges.

Much of what was on parade was military and law enforcement, and while that was intended to stir patriotic fervor, it was probably also meant to quash any desire upon the part of the citizenry to express dissent. As a response to the inequities of the class system in England, the widespread unemployment, and the increasing levels of poverty, socialists, communists, and anarchists had gained some friendly reception among the British populace. Those in power were well aware of that. I’m not suggesting that the people were on the verge of rising up against their leaders, but the ruling class were certainly wary and careful.

Socialists had caused quite a stir with demonstrations over the years. Fenians had succeeded in terrorist plots against the government. An anarchist had assassinated the U.S. president, William McKinley, less than a year earlier. New and frightening ideologies lurked among the populace.

If dissent had been expressed by members of the crowds watching the parading nobles, aristocrats, and military during the coronation, I suspect it would have been put down swiftly, probably with a show of violent force. Brutality of that type wasn’t uncommon in England of the time.

Fifteen years earlier on Bloody Sunday, also in Trafalgar Square, the Metropolitan Police and the British Army attacked socialists demonstrating against unemployment and coercion in Ireland. Including some policeman, 75 people were badly injured. It’s said that Mary Anne “Polly” Nichols, Jack the Ripper’s first victim, was destitute and sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square around that time, so she may have witnessed the riot. Bloody Sunday occurred less than a year before her death.

In the United States, we currently have a candidate from one of our two major political parties encouraging brutality against demonstrators who are against him. He says he disdains political correctness and pretends to be courageous for saying what he thinks. I suspect he just wants to create as much uproar as he can to continue getting free media coverage. If political correctness is bad because its all lies and promotes conspiracies of lies, the man is being particularly selective of what he condemns, considering the many lies he tells.

As night came on during the coronation of King Edward, the streets were filled with drunken celebration. Many of the homeless didn’t have the energy or wealth to join in, but instead took advantage of the distracted police and simply slept.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Photographic plate from THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS by Jack London.

In Chapter 11, Jack London, dead on his feet after a day and a night without sleep, waited with hundreds of homeless for a free breakfast offered by the Salvation Army. He refered to time he spent as a tramp, and told of having worked just to get his breakfast in the past. This past history accounts in part for his ability to get along with the homeless and for his compassion.

Jack London had worked at hard labor. He’d been to sea as an oyster pirate and sealer. While working in the Alaskan gold rush, he’d suffered plenty of extreme weather, hunger, and malnutrition that resulted in loss of teeth and damage to bodily joints. He’d come up rough and worked with and for a variety of men, and knew something of their character.  He also clearly knew something of the world. Much of this is found in his narrative. In 1902, he would have been 26 years old, young for so worldly a man. He would die at age 40 from kidney failure, probably due to an infection picked up while traveling in the Pacific.

Jack London didn’t like the attitude of the man in charge at the Salvation Army breakfast because the fellow seemed to enjoy threatening to withhold the food in order to keep those who had come for it in line. The author thought that the look in the man’s eyes and his manner indicated that he acted the way he did to be cruel. Jack London didn’t speculate on why a fellow like that would work for a charity that helped the poor. When after the meal was finished, the author tried to leave in an effort to do what a poor unemployed man would want to do, which was to go out looking for work, the Salvation Army staff tried to stop him because they weren’t through with him. They expected him to remain for the entire program. He had not been told he had to remain for the gospel portion program until he tried to leave. The berating he received before he was finally allowed to leave was full of the suggestion that he, being a homeless, unemployed fellow, had no where else to be, certainly nothing important; further, that if he thought there were jobs to be had, then he obviously could work to earn money to feed himself and so had no business seeking a free breakfast.

I suppose those particular staff members did their work purely for the absolutely hopeless. Should they have had someone to question the unfortunates that came for a meal? “Just how hopeless are you sir? Madam, do you have any ambition to better yourself in life?” Clearly they weren’t offering the “free breakfast” advertised. No, one was expected to listen to them preach in exchange for the meal. That was a small price to pay if you were truly hungry.

In an earlier chapter, the author spoke bitterly of those he’d seen with power over others using it with apparent selfish relish. He’d also referred to his pauper companions reacting to the hardships they endured by talking like anarchist, and throwing around hollow threats. The author understood their sentiments though he was not in agreement. A socialist, he believed that laws might be changed to help the unfortunates. He also believed in the power of unions to do workers good.

As an American, I am a socialist in that I am grateful to have benefitted from many socialist programs, such as those that provide public schools, public health, law enforcement, military defense, parks, museums, support of the arts, infrastructure, and a social safety net. With the latter, the only time I’ve personally benefitted was when my wife was out of work for a year and a half and received unemployment checks from the government that helped us a lot.

As an American, I am a Republican in that I want federal and state governments that spend tax dollars carefully, and a federal government that allows states to make decisions about their futures and a free enterprise system that allows for competition in the market place.

As an American, I am a Democrat in that I want to protect civil liberties, political and religious freedom and freedom of expression. I want regulations on business and industry to prevent those in a hurry to make a profit from creating situations harmful to the public, and I also want a social safety net.

I am a moderate. I believe most American are.


“Broken on the Wheel” copyright©2011 Alan M. Clark. Acrylic on hardboard.

I’m also like Jack London in that I don’t like seeing those with power dispense it in a purely self-serving manner. Some who seek power do that, and that’s always been the case. In 1902 London, brutality was more common, expressions of cruelty more accepted, especially across class, gender, and racial boundaries.

Not intending to truly defend politically correctness, but give me the PC society we have over that of brutal Edwardian England any day.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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"Homeless and Hungry" by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

“Homeless and Hungry” by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

In Chapter 10, Jack London slept rough to see what that was like for the homeless.
One can imagine that sleeping rough in a large metropolitan area with lots of parks would be something like going camping. If it was a nice warm evening, a sleeping bag (modern term) wouldn’t be needed. If it wasn’t raining—something unpredictable in a London summer—the nice soft lawn of a park would make a good resting place.

Except that the police, along their beats, checked the parks for those sleeping rough at night. So find some shrubbery and hide amidst them and doze off, right? No, the parks had guardians who patrolled them at night. They knew all the spots where the homeless tried to shelter. If they found someone, they alerted the nearest beat constable.

Okay, so no soft lawn, shrubberies didn’t work; parks in general were out. Perhaps the streets had something: alleys, doorways, sewer grates, culverts, railway bridges and viaducts. Unfortunately the constables knew their beats so well all likely sleeping spots were well-known and checked regularly.

Why weren’t the homeless allowed to sleep at night? Clearly, the law did not allow them to do so in public places. Jack London is similarly stumped by this. If the idea was to make the homeless life so uncomfortable that people would get jobs—assuming that any became available—the law or ordinance against sleeping rough at night worked against it. Obviously, a well-rested person who could actually perform labor during the day would more easily find work. Without that consideration, the effort to keep the homeless awake seems at best arbitrary, at worst a particularly cruel one.

Perhaps a notion about the lower class and poor that was carried by many from a higher station played a part; that unfortunates deserved what they got in life because they were inherently inferior and morally corrupt. They were all “choke artists” and “losers,” to use more modern terms. Implied in this thinking is the idea that evidence of the poor’s inferiority was the fact that they had landed hard on the streets in the predicament in which they found themselves. That’s circular thinking.

Trying to sleep rough in London at night, one might get 10 minutes of sleep at a stretch, 30 if lucky, but what was the quality of that sleep? It had to be spent in an environment full of vermin; rats, mice, flies, and scavengers; hungry humans, dogs, and cats.

In a time when the majority of travel that didn’t occur on foot was still powered by horse—hundreds of thousands of them in London of the time—the streets were mired each day in at least a thousand tons of horse dung and over a hundred thousand gallons of horse urine. That had to smell bad.

Much of the manure in London was gathered by scavengers and hauled away for use in agriculture and industry. London would have been totally mired in waste if not for the scavengers. While unemployment had become an increasing problem, the poor, both adults and children, scavenged and sold what they found. The pure finders scooped dog poop for tanneries. The bone grubbers collected bone for the makers of fertilizer. Toshers scavenged in the sewers. Mudlarks, many of them children, scavenged on the banks of the poisonous River Thames. Metal, stray bits of coal, leather, and cloth were all sellable.

Despite the army of unemployed scavenging for industry, much horse dung remained on the streets long enough for flies to breed in it.

I remember my father who was born in the 1920s talking about flies in “the old days.” One of the things he said was that before horses were gone from the streets in Nashville, Tennessee, there had been a lot more flies. “Flies everywhere,” he said, “getting into everything.” Of course that was Nashville, Tennessee when it was a small city in a county of a couple hundred thousand people, not the London of millions.

The average lifespan of a horse in London at the time was about 3 years. Flies also bred in the carcasses of horses, which were often left where they had fallen dead at least until rigor mortise relaxed to make dismemberment and carting away of the remains easier. The flies needed food, and visited every moist aperture they could find, spreading diseases like typhoid fever.

Here is an illustration from Punch Magazine that gives a sense of the poisonous environment of London. The illustration was published in 1858 during a bad cholera outbreak. After that, London had built the best sewers in the world to improve the situation. The river was much cleaner, the drinking water much safer, but filth on the streets had only increased.


“Thames Offspring” Punch Magazine 1858, Volume 35

Try sleeping in that environment. I’d want to cover my face for sure. To wear something over my mouth and nose might also have helped slightly to protect my lungs from the horrid air which was charged with soot particulates and sulfur dioxide from industrial and home use—heating and cooking—of coal burning. The poisons in the London air took the lives of thousands of people every year.

Then there were the human scavengers I spoke of, some desperate enough to take what they could off a sleeping man, despite the risks. Remember, leather and cloth were sellable. One might wake up without shoes or missing pieces of clothing. That’s assuming one woke up at all. Hungry children banded together to scavenge in groups, some of them, organized by adults known as kidsmen, were quite ruthless. Fagin in Oliver Twist was a kidsman.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the cats, but feral dogs…. Hmmm, my pup, Jasper, looks at me with a particularly sad expression when I consider writing about canines molesting sleeping humans, so I’ll just leave that up to my audiences’ imaginations.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Entering the Workhouse

In Chapter 9, we see that Jack London finally succeeded in entering the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward. He opened the chapter with an apology to his body for what he forced it to endure.

Again, engaging in conversation with the men sharing his predicament, he learned that many knew no better way to get on in the lives they had. The men told stories of their experiences in the various spikes (workhouses), some with happy endings, some with sad ones. They gave a warning of what awaited the infirm within the workhouse infirmary, the “blackjack” or “white potion,” they believed was given to hasten the departure of those who lingered in disease and had become a burden to the relief system. They shared knowledge of those who hated them, those who felt that the human beings who entered the relief system were barely human and deserving of no compassion. Those people frequently saw paupers as society’s pirates, conmen, selfish individuals not willing to do their share in life and who knowingly drag everyone else down. Some of the haters were those who worked within the relief system itself.

A conversation between Elizabeth and John Stride in Say Anything But Your Prayers helps to express some of the feelings. In this scene, Elizabeth is home in the evening after performing her daily labor of oakum picking at the Poplar workhouse for the out relief she and her ill husband are receiving:

In her second week of out relief labor, Elizabeth could not contain her complaints any longer. “I understand the workhouse guardians want the work to be a hardship so only the truly needy seek relief,” she said to John, “but why must they work us until we’re miserable?”

“For fear wages will suffer,” he said, “Parliament doesn’t want relief to compete with labor.”

“Jobs are so hard to come by, wages drop anyway,” Elizabeth said. “There are so many hungry people who’ll die without relief.”

“Some workhouse Guardians have good intentions. At least once a week, though, I read in the newspaper that some crow or another in Parliament is squawking about how those who bear the harsh treatment deserve it because they lack the moral strength to do better. You know that’s the common belief.”

Indeed, he was’t telling Elizabeth anything she didn’t already understand. When she’d worked in the coffee shop, she’d heard plenty of well-dressed people push such ideas about the poor. Most were careful not to sound too heartless. Working with Lettie at laundries and kitchens, she’d noticed the same sort of message was well received and repeated by many laborers who treated the poor as scapegoats, despite the fact that the workers themselves suffered low wages, long hours, and no redress with employers who had little regard for the needs of those they employed.


“Holding Back Tears” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS by Alan M. Clark

John shook his head. “As long as people see the poor as mumpers, prigs, and sharpers, employers will do as they please.”

“I’m no thief or con artist!” Elizabeth said. “I don’t go to the workhouse because I’m not willing to do better.”

“I know,” John said, gently reaching to take her dry, cracked hands. “You’re a hard working woman.”

When she’d arrived for the first time in London so long ago, Elizabeth was alarmed by the large crowds and the abundance of activity. She’d thought of the city as a great, hungry beast trying to digest her. At present, she saw the workhouse as the London beast’s gastric mill, a gizzard full of hard knocks meant to grind the toughness out of those the city might have trouble digesting otherwise. She was determined not to let it beat her, but feared she would soon meet her limit.

The scene above takes place in the year 1877. The ranks of the homeless had grown exponentially and the conditions within the relief system had worsened immensely in the following twenty-five years. Jack London ate the bitter food of the workhouse, and stayed the night, barely able to sleep in a filthy hammock within inches of his neighbors and surrounded by men reeking of bodily neglect, noisy in their gastric and respiratory distress, and crying out in their sleep from nightmares. The next day, the labor he was given for the relief benefits he’d received was to help keep clean the workhouse infirmary. While doing so, he was exposed to the virulent and potentially deadly refuse of the sick and dying. The conditions being harsher than he’d imagined and figuring he’d got the sampling he needed to talk about the experience with verisimilitude, he decided at the end of the work day to flee through the gate that had been opened to admit the dead wagon, which had come to the workhouse to collect the bodies of five inmates. He was required by the system to stay another night or forfeit the right to apply for relief in the future. The author did not hesitate in making his decision.

Workhouse Infirmary

I spoke to a conservative friend about what Jack London was doing in writing The People of the Abyss. Her response was, “If he’d really been willing to know what it was like, he wouldn’t have set up the extra room as a retreat, and he wouldn’t have picked summer as the time to do the investigation.”

I thought that an extraordinary dismissal of the author’s effort.

Another, ultra-conservative responded similarly, but with more vehemence. “Jack London was a communist. The fact that he did it during warm weather and had a room to go hide in when things got tough shows he was just a bleeding heart. The poor were probably encouraged by communists. London has always had a lot of immigrants. The book is tripe.”

Hmmmm? Sounded to me like someone trying to apply 21st century right wing talking points to 1902 London. I know a lot of people, many of them brave and generous, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, but I do not personally know anyone who has the guts to do anything like what Jack London did just to see how the unfortunates of the world suffered. I am certainly not the sort of person brave enough to do that.

Immigrants were the problem then too, huh?

Scapegoats are a-dime-a-dozen when people are scared that they will not have enough or that their world might have to change a little to allow for someone else. There are always those seeking followers, individuals willing to stoke those types of fears to gain and solidify power. We have so-called leaders in America today who use those tactics. It’s easy to follow such strong men, because they point out the best scapegoats, heap ridicule on them in a particularly clever way, and thereby provide a convenient target for unfocused anger.

The trick with scapegoats is not getting to know them too well. They must remain out of focus in order for their role to continue. Stick with stereotyping the scapegoat or suffer uncomfortable compassion and discover that a real human being exists under the heavy cloak of suspicion and turpitude they’ve been forced into. The soft people of the society to which I belong, and I include myself in this—with our myriad conveniences and comforts, with our television and internet-groomed perspectives and personalities, and our sated bellies and psyches—we should be very careful about what and how we learn about how the other half live. Sorry—my fraction of one half may be a little off.

Yes, sarcasm. I get petty and small at times.

Many of those Jack London met in the workhouse were those who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, had no family to help them, and could find no way out of their predicament. Some were merely too old to be considered employable in a job market with too few jobs in a society filled with eager young people seeking work. Some suffered damage from performing the work they were qualified to do and could no longer function in the field of their expertise. So many people died suddenly of communicable diseases, especially those living in the close quarters of the East End, that sometimes all but one member of a family had passed on. In that case, the entire family safety net for the individual remaining was gone.

When I hear conservatives and libertarians, especially those who will brook no compromises, talk about giving the markets freedom and deregulating, I think of the laissez-faire capitalism of Victorian England, which had in the time of Jack London’s investigation just spilled over into the Georgian Era. I think of the abuses against workers the system allowed. I think of the poisoning of the environment and consequently the poisoning of the citizens. I think of the ineffective safety net for the old and infirm. I think of the power of greed and wonder that so many willingly or cynically disregard that in their political calculations.

Some regulations are meant to help society. Some are meant to line the pockets of those who lobbied for them, but the problem isn’t one-sided. Where I live in Eugene Oregon, I have to have a smoke alarm in each room in my house. Clearly, someone wanted to sell more smoke alarms. There are also regulations to prevent my neighbors from allowing waste, raw sewage, and chemicals in the runoff from their property into the storm sewers. That helps preserve the life that depends on the flow of clean groundwater and helps keep the rivers that constitute our municipal water sources from becoming poisonous. So many people fish those streams and depend on them for commerce of many types. A fellow down the street from me was running a mechanic shop out of his home garage, working mostly on outboard engines and snowmobiles. He was shut down for allowing waste, including gasoline and old oil from his business to run into the street drains. He saw that as a great injustice.

My response to my conservative friend concerning Jack London making his investigation in summer and establishing a retreat in the form of a warm, dry room: “The author put himself and his health at risk in order to gain understanding and to share what he found.”

I’ll add to that response here for my ultra-conservative acquaintance: Jack London could have just written an adventure story. He was good at it, and the ability had earned him money and fame.

—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, :

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