This is written by a lady who was a witness to the appalling childhood poverty in Victorian London. In the days before universal education and social security, the poor had to fend for themselves; the “luckier” children might find a place in a “Ragged School”, referred to here as “the Refuge”.
They have among them one penny, with which they buy, while on their journey, a little bread, which they share equally. Alas! when they get to the Forest “they can’t find no holly,” and are obliged to tramp back to London again, sick and hungry, sleeping under hedges when their strength is spent. To the “Refuge” they come as their last resource.
Then, there is another little fellow—a dull boy, stunted and stupid with misery; he gained his living while he could by sweeping crossings, carrying parcels, etc. His mother died while he was an infant; his father, “a respectable tradesman,” so it is said, followed her when the child was ten years old; his brother was drowned at sea. In the summertime he could earn twopence a-day by minding children of the hop-pickers; but then summer had fled, and he must live through the winter till the good time comes again. He has even been driven from his favourite bedroom—an archway behind Surrey Theatre. His earnings have fallen off, and he, too, has come to the “Refuge.”
Then there is a handsome boy, also a crossing-sweeper. He has come from Bristol, and he has a cancer forming in his foot. When he went to the Hospital they told him to “rest his foot, keep it warm, and poultice1 it every night.” Why did they not tell him that a breakfast cup full of turtle soup and half-a-glass of whisky every three hours would be a benefit to his constitution? Poultice his foot every night! Why, if you gave him a poultice the child would eat it! He too, has come to the Refuge as a last resource.
One more instance, and we have done. One of the boys is a member of a family which consists of father, mother, and twelve children. His two eldest brothers are always in prison ” for doing handkerchiefs.” His eldest sister is now fifteen years of age, and is in a Reformatory. She was a thief in her infancy, and at eleven years of age a prostitute. This family collectively, appear in the long nights to have entered upon a very peculiar class of business. At two a.m. they would issue out from the cellar in which they lived, and work away till day-light at pulling down the posters and bills from the walls. The whole family in this way, by strenuous exertion, might succeed in tearing down half-a-hundred weight of paper, for which they could get 7½ d. One member of this firm has now come to the Refuge. It is useless, however, to multiply instances, when the narrative will be found at full length in another portion of our columns this day. There is a “Refuge” for females as well as one for boys close at hand, and he must be more or less than man who can read without emotion the story of its inmates. “A merry Christmas” to them, indeed! Cannot something be done for these poor creatures?
1 poultice – a warm paste made out of herbs, oats etc. Its warmth was meant to soothe a skin injury