NOTE: This article first appeared as ‘Christian Effort in the Kensington Potteries, Notting Hill’ authored by Robert Lee in the London City Mission Magazine during March 1902 and has been made available thanks to local historian Tom Vague and the Colville Community Forum.
‘Christian Effort in the Kensington Potteries, Notting Hill’ by Robert Lee, London City Mission Magazine, March 1 1902:
This is, we believe, one of the lowest districts in London, though situated in the western portion of the Metropolis. Those who know London only from what they read of it might imagine that nearly all the poverty and crime were to be found in the East End. Of late years the sad condition of a large portion of South London has been more fully brought to light both by the secular and religious press. But the misery and sin of London does not end even here. There are slum districts in the North, and even in the West of London, oftentimes not far from the abodes of wealth and grandeur.
Our readers who are acquainted with the whole of Notting Hill will be grieved to learn that there are localities in that neighbourhood so low as the one described in the following report, but the description is a true one. Indeed, it might be painted even blacker, but we have felt constrained to omit some sentences from the missionary’s report lest we should shock our readers. We believe that every attentive reader will feel the great importance of the work being carried on in this district, and will be grieved to learn that the committee have no guaranteed support for the district. Will some supporter kindly give or collect £50 per annum towards the missionary’s salary?…
Description of new district. I am now stationed at the People’s Hall, Latimer Road (now Freston Road), Notting Hill, the Mission branch of a church in Kensington. I take part in the work of the hall, and assist in the general mission work. New premises are being built, when we hope to launch out into more aggressive effort. In my district there are 14 streets, with about 475 dwellings – viz, 225 four-roomed, 50 six, and 200 eight-roomed houses, accommodating 1,500 families.
Of the above mentioned number of dwellings, 150 are used as lodging-houses, 123 of them being let out as furnished apartments, which the remaining 17 are registered Common Lodging-houses. As far as I can ascertain, at least 800 families live in one-roomed furnished apartments, whilst 300 men and 200 women may be found, during the cold season, in residence in the common lodging-houses. I should think that on my district fully 1,000 families live in one room each, furnished and unfurnished.
The moral condition of the people. Of the 14 streets comprised in my sphere of service, 7 are occupied by the respectable working class, whilst the remainder, constituting by far the larger portion, forms one of the worst slum districts in London. As my efforts have been concentrated mainly upon this worst section, I would speak more particularly concerning it. Whether there is any improvement in the morals of this latter portion is a question. Enquiring from old residents whether this part is better or worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago, I have received conflicting reports. For various reasons I cannot see how there can possibly be any change for the better.
(1) In the first place, I notice the houses were built for a class altogether different from those now occupying them. (2) Secondly, the close proximity of one of His Majesty’s Prisons for short-timers leads many of the prisoners when they are released to find their way here by sort of instinct. Proof of this is to be found in the great number of ‘lags’ residing here. (3) Then last, but not by any means the least, large numbers of the poorest and most depraved, who are turned out of other slum districts to make way for street improvements, flock here. One woman, who once carried on a business in Drury Lane, told me she often comes across old Drury Lane residents now living in this part of the Metropolis.
How the wolf is kept from the door. The means whereby these people can earn their living are as various as their personal characters. Some work in foundries and factories as mechanics, others as cabmen, or horse-keepers; many more as labourers in various trades; whilst many manage to earn a livelihood as costermongers, rag and bone men, hawkers and flower sellers, laundry workers, Punch and Judy showmen, and street organists; and numbers are professional thieves, cadgers, pickpockets, and the most degraded women.
The professional cadger is an unlimited quantity here, and, generally speaking, lives well, for Kensington is, from their stand-point, a happy hunting-ground. Upon an athletic-looking young fellow being remonstrated with for his lazy life, he replied: “What! Me work? Why, bless you, I can earn more money looking out for work than I can working.”
Numbers of the lowest class of women are here, and are of the most hardened type. All have had from time the proffered hand of help held out to them, but they prefer their evil courses. They are to be found in the common lodging-houses and furnished apartments. One experienced worker in rescue work, who has laboured in Whitechapel for fully 20 years, declared to me the type of women in the latter place were far better than those here in my district.
Anarchy. Some time ago there was a local body of Anarchists who met regularly in secret, but as far as I can find out, the meetings have been abandoned, and the members scattered. That there are odd ones holding socialistic and revolutionary doctrines I have not the least the doubt, for I meet with them occasionally; but as to the majority of my people, I have been deeply touched, at times, to see how firmly-rooted the King and Queen are in the affections of even the most depraved and violent.
Bad Language. In common with districts of this character, most unparliamentary, and often obscene, language forms a large portion of the working vocabulary of the people. I have shuddered when hearing mothers use such language to their children and girls of tender age to others. What an indication of a low moral tone.
Drunkenness. As might be expected, drunkenness is one of the prevailing characteristics of the people. Drunkenness is the inseparable companion of vice. There are fourteen streets within the boundaries of my district, and in these fourteen streets there are fourteen public houses. In any of them, at any time of the day, you will find great numbers of women. Many army and navy pensioners reside here, and on ‘pension day’, and the day following, the river of intemperance reaches high-water mark.
Very many earn good wages, but through intemperate habits are destitute. I know of one man who, though earning weekly from 25s to 35s, lives in a common lodging-house, so that he may have all the more for drink. One good-natured young fellow, who goes in company with another playing a street organ, and breaking on his head with a heavy sledge-hammer the thick paving street flag-stones, told me they often earn 18s a day, ‘go on the booze, and when night comes haven’t a blooming penny for our lodgings.’
Only a few weeks back I attended the funeral of a man I visited. Many of the mourners smelt strongly of drink. As we walked in procession towards the grave, the man who walked in front of me was so intoxicated that it was with the greatest difficulty he maintained his equilibrium. Though following a corpse, he and his wife quarrelled and nearly came to blows. The scene at the grave side was one of such disorder that the clergyman, determining to watch as well as pray, read the church prayers with his eyes upon the mourners. After the service, by some means or other, the intoxicated man I have just referred to got separated from the rest. Finding him sitting upon a vault in another part of the graveyard, I had a most earnest talk with him. Tears ran down his cheeks as I spoke of his dead comrade, of the inevitable result of his intemperate habits, and of the love and grace of God.
And yet these people are to be pitied. Perhaps there was only too much truth in the boast of one of the most hardened and horrible-looking men. Speaking to him of the evils of intemperance, he ejaculated: “But, Guv’nor I’m very happy. What! Give up drink? Not me. Why, bless you, I was born drunk, and I’ll die drunk.” How true it is that many are thus trained from their earliest days.
The Worst Street in London. More than one street has been denominated, and amongst them one in my district. Several experienced workers have declared to me that it is the worst in the whole Metropolis. “Talk about Seven Dials, why it’s now’t to this,” one policeman was heard to say to another.” There are about 40 houses of 8 rooms each, 12 of which are used as common lodging-houses, whilst nearly all the remainder are let out as furnished apartments. The tenants of these rooms are comprised of degraded women, unmarried couples, or husbands and wives who have lost their homes and come down in the world through drunkenness, gambling, ill health, or misfortune.
Renting a house of 8 rooms for about 14s or 15s per week, and furnishing each room with an old secondhand bed, a table, a couple of chairs, two cups and saucers, and a kettle, they charge 4s 6d for back rooms, and 6s 10d or 7s to 7s 6d for front rooms, realising £1 10s to £2 2s per house. In these miserable homes, I am thankful to say, I have had most encouraging receptions from both Romanists and Protestants.
One of the many lessons taught us by the present campaign in South Africa is the fatal evil of under-estimating the power of the enemy. The first week in my new charge sufficed to show me the immense difficulties of the work. That the great enemy of righteousness was only too securely entrenched here was at once manifest. My heart sank within me, having little hope of being able to dislodge such a crafty foe, until I remembered that the Lord was with me. Counting upon the Presence, I felt that victory was assured, and I went forward with a cheerful heart… Work in the Common Lodging-houses. Here one meets with the very scum of the earth.
The Power of Music. On Sunday December 15 one of the kitchens visited was for men. Tapping at the door we entered, and found thirty men sitting upon forms all around the room. With a “Good evening, gentlemen,” I stepped into the centre, but there was an ominous silence. “I’ve a good friend with me this evening; would you like to hear his auto-harp?” “No, guv’nor, we want no music here!” one man replied. Then two others began raving at us in a fearful manner. Some accepted my books and tracts, whilst others refused. My friend looked frightened and kept near the door. “Give them a tune,” I whispered.
I can’t get away from it. There have been many disappointments in this trying lodging-house work, as one may expect. For instance, I became very much interested in a man who introduced himself to me as “a phrenologist, poet, dramatic reciter, and wandering minstrel.” He had moved in better society – he told me that once he had been an editor of a weekly paper – but drink and immorality had been the cause of his downfall. I had many long chats with him, and thought he was a hopeful case. A situation was secured for him, but he never turned up at the appointed time or place. I have seen him once since then, but now have lost all traces of his whereabouts.’