Waifs And Strays by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

When I talked [1] of the hopeless poor and of degraded men, I had in my mind only the feeble or detestable adults who degrade our civilisation; but I have by no means forgotten the unhappy little souls who develop into wastrels unless they are taken away from hideous surroundings which cramp vitality, destroy all childish happiness, and turn into brutes poor young creatures who bear the human image. Lately I heard one or two little stories which are amongst the most pathetic that ever came before me in the course of some small experience of life among the forsaken classes–or rather let me say, the classes that used to be forsaken. These little stories have prompted me to endeavour to deal carefully with a matter which has cost me many sad thoughts.

Footnote: [1] Essay “The Hopless Poor”.

A stray child was rescued from the streets by a society which is extending its operations very rapidly, and the little creature was placed as a boarder with a cottager in the country. To the utter amazement of the good rustic folk, their queer little guest showed complete ignorance of the commonest plants and animals; she had never seen any pretty thing, and she was quite used to being hungry and to satisfying her appetite with scraps of garbage. When she first saw a daisy on the green, she gazed longingly, and then asked plaintively, “Please, might I touch that?” When she was told that she might pluck a few daisies she was much delighted. After her first experiences in the botanising line she formally asked permission to pluck many wild flowers; but she always seemed to have a dread of transgressing against some dim law which had been hitherto represented to her mind by the man in blue who used to watch over her miserable alley. Before she became accustomed to receiving food at regular intervals, she fairly touched the hearts of her foster-parents by one queer request. The housewife was washing some Brussels sprouts, when the little stray said timidly, “Please, may I eat a bit of that stalk?” Of course the stringy mass was uneatable; but it turned out that the forlorn child had been very glad to worry at the stalks from the gutter as a dog does at an unclean bone. Another little girl was taken from the den which she knew as home, after her parents had been sent to prison for treating her with unspeakable cruelty. The matron of the country home found that the child’s body was scarred from neck to ankle in a fashion which no lapse of years could efface. The explanation of the disfigurement was very simple. “If I didn’t bring in any money mother beat me first; and then, when father came in drunk, she tied my hands behind my back and told him to give me the buckle. Then they strapped me on the bed and fastened my feet, and he whacked me with the buckle-end of his strap.” It sounds very horrible, does it not? Nevertheless, the facts remain that the wretched parents were caught in the act and convicted, and that the child must carry her scars to her grave. No one who has not seen these lost children can form an idea of their darkness and helplessness of mind. We all know the story of the South Sea islanders, who said, “What a big pig!” when they first saw a horse; one little London savage quite equalled this by remarking, “What a little cow!” when she saw a tiny Maltese terrier brought by a lady missionary. The child had some vague conception regarding a cow; but, like others of her class, her notions of size, form, and colour, were quite cloudy. Another of these city phenomena did not know how to blow out a candle; and in many cases it is most difficult to persuade those newly reclaimed to go to bed without keeping their boots on. We cannot call such beings barbarians, because “barbarian” implies something wild, strong, and even noble; yet, to our shame, we must call them savages, and we must own that they are born and bred within easy gunshot distance of our centres of culture, enlightenment, and luxury. They swarm, do these children of suffering: and easy-going people have no idea of the density of the savagery amid which such scions of our noble English race are reared. A gentleman once offered sixpence to a little girl who appeared before him dressed in a single garment which seemed to have been roughly made from some sort of sacking. He expected to see her snatch at the coin with all the eagerness of the ordinary hardy street-arab; but she showed her jagged brown teeth, and said huskily, “No! Big money!” A lady, divining with the rapid feminine instinct what was meant by the enigmatic muttering, explained, “She does not know the sixpence. She has had coppers to spend before.” And so it turned out to be.

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Perhaps comfortable, satisfied readers may be startled, or even offended, if I say that there are young creatures in our great cities who rarely see even the light of day, save when the beams are filtered through the reek of a court; and these same infants resemble the black fellows of Western Australia or the Troglodytes of Africa in general intelligence. I have little heart to speak of the parents who are answerable for such horrors of crass neglect and cruelty. By laying a set of dry police reports before any sensitive person I could make that person shudder without adding a word of rhetoric; for it would be seen that the popular picture of a fiend represents rather a mild and harmless entity if we compare it with the foul-souled human beings who dwell in our benighted places. What is to be done? It is best to grapple swiftly with an ugly question; and I do not hesitate to attack deliberately one of the most delicate puzzles that ever came before the world. Wise emotionless men may say, and do say, “Are you going to relieve male and female idlers and drunkards of all anxiety regarding their offspring? Do you mean to discourage the honest but poverty-stricken parents who do their best for their children? What kind of world will you make for us all if you give your aid to the worst and neglect the good folk?” Those are very awkward questions, and I can answer them only by a sort of expedient which must not be mistaken for intellectual conjuring; I drop ordinary logic and theories of probability and go at once to facts. At first sight it seems like rank folly for any man or body of men to take charge of a child which has been neglected by shameless parents; but, on the other hand, let us consider our own self-interest, and leave sentiment alone for a while. We cannot put the benighted starvelings into a lethal chamber and dispose of their brief lives in that fashion; we are bound to maintain them in some way or other–and the ratepayers of St. George’s-in-the-East know to some trifling extent what that means. If the waifs grow up to be predatory animals, we must maintain them first of all in reformatories, and afterwards, at intervals during their lives, in prisons. If they grow up without shaking off the terrible mental darkness of their starveling childhood, we must provide for them in asylums. A thoroughly neglected waif costs this happy country something like fifteen pounds per year for the term of his natural life. Very good. At this point some hard-headed person says, “What about the workhouses?” This brings us face to face with another astounding problem to solve which at all satisfactorily requires no little research and thought. I know that there are good workhouses; but I happen to know that there are also bad ones. In many a ship and fishing-vessel fine fellows may be met with who were sent out early from workhouse-schools and wrought their way onward until they became brave and useful seamen; there are also many industrious well-conducted girls who came originally from the great Union schools. But, when I take another side of the picture, I am inclined to say very fervently, “Anything rather than the workhouse system for children! Anything short of complete neglect!” Observe that in one of the overgrown schools the young folk are scarcely treated as human; their individuality–if they have any to begin with–is soon lost; they are known only by a number, and they are passed into the outer world like bundles of shot rubbish. There are seamen who have never cast off the peculiar workhouse taint–and no worse shipmates ever afflicted any capable and honourable soul: for these Union weeds carry the vices of Rob the Grinder and Noah Claypole on to blue water, and show themselves to be hounds who would fawn or snarl, steal or talk saintliness, lie or sneak just as interest suited them. Then the workhouse girls: I have said sharp words about cruel mistresses; but I frankly own that the average lady who is saddled with the average workhouse servant has some slight reasons for showing acerbity, though she has none for practising cruelty. How could anybody expect a girl to turn out well after the usual course of workhouse training? The life of the soul is too often quenched; the flame of life in the poor body is dim and low; and the mechanical morality, the dull, meaningless round of useless lessons, the habit of herding in unhealthy rooms with unhealthy companions, all tend to develop a creature which can be regarded only as one of Nature’s failures, if I may parody a phrase of the superlative Beau Brummel’s.

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There is another and darker side to the workhouse question, but I shall skim it lightly. The women whose conversation the young girls hear are often wicked, and thus a dull, under-fed, inept child may have a great deal too much knowledge of evil. Can we expect such a collection to contain a large percentage of seemly and useful children? Is it a fact that the Unions usually supply domestics worth keeping? Ask the mistresses, and the answer will not be encouraging. No; the workhouse will not quite suffice. What we want to do is to take the waifs and strays into places where they may lead a natural and healthy life. Get them clear of the horror of the slums, let them breathe pure air and learn pure and simple habits, and then, instead of odious and costly human weeds, we may have wholesome, useful fellow-citizens, who not only will cost us nothing, but who will be a distinct source of solid profit to the empire. The thing has been and is being done steadily by good men and women who defy prejudice and go to work in a vigorous practical way. The most miserable and apparently hopeless little creatures from the filthy purlieus of great towns become gradually bright and healthy and intelligent when they are taken to their natural home–the country–and cut adrift from the congested centres of population. The cost of their maintenance is at first a little over the workhouse figure; but then the article produced for the money is far and away superior to anything turned out by any workhouse. The rescued children are eagerly sought after in the Colonies; and I am not aware of any case in which one of the young emigrants has expressed discontent. How much better it is to see these poor waifs changed into useful, profitable colonists than to have them sullenly, uselessly starving in the dens of London and Liverpool and Manchester! The work of rescuing and training the lost children has not been fully developed yet; but enough has been done to show that in a few years we shall have a large number of prosperous Colonial farmers who will indirectly contribute to the wealth of mighty Britain. Had the trained emigrants never been snatched away from the verge of the pit, we should have been obliged to maintain them until their wretched lives ended with sordid deaths, and the very cost of their burial would have come from the pockets of pinched workers. I fancy that I have shown the advisability of neglecting strict economic canons in this instance. I abhor the pestilent beings who swarm in certain quarters, and I should never dream of removing any burden from their shoulders if I thought that it would only leave the rascals with more money to expend on brutish pleasures; but I desire to look far ahead, and I can see that, when the present generation of adult wastrels dies out, it will be a very good thing for all of us if there are few or none of the same stamp ready to take their places. By resolutely removing the children of vice and sorrow, we clear the road for a better race. Let it be understood that I have a truly orthodox dread of “pauperisation,” and I watch very jealously the doings of those who are anxious to feed all sorts and conditions of men; but pauperising men by maintaining them in laziness is very different from rearing useful subjects of the empire, whose trained labour is a source of profit and whose developed morality is a fund of security. We cannot take Chinese methods of lessening the pressure of population, and we must at once decide on the wisest way of dealing with our waifs and strays; if we do not, then the chances are that they will deal unpleasantly with us. The locust, the lemming, the phylloxera, are all very insignificant creatures; but, when they act together in numbers, they can very soon devastate a district. The parable is not by any means inapt.

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