Ancestry UK


by Mary Higgs

London Investigations was one of a number of undercover excursions made by Mary Higgs into the accommodation available for the homeless poor and destitute, initially in her home area of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Her first venture, A Tramp Among Tramps, was originally published anonymously in 1904 by "A Lady" and attracted much attention. London Investigations was written in 1905 and originally published in the Daily News in April, 1905. The arduousness of the work she was made to do left her unwell for a month.


I have been deterred from specimening women's lodgings in London by this difficulty — that one could not be sure of emerging in a fit condition to be received into the house of respectable friends.

Being anxious, however, to find out something about them, previous to speaking at a public meeting, at about 8 p.m. one evening, I started from near one of the principal stations, with my son to shadow me. He was dressed as a working man, and I as a woman of the vagrant class, fairly decent. I was supposed to have arrived in London and to be seeking a night's shelter. I crossed the street to enquire of an old applewoman where a bed was to be had. Her answer was not very encouraging. "There is a lodging-house for women at — Street, but it's a bad place. I wouldn't advise you to go there if you are respectable. There is another in — Street, it's a charity place." We determined to try to find both. We found the bad one with difficulty, and were again warned by a neighbour. So I did not venture there. Some low streets near appeared to be frequented by doubtful characters. We sought the "charity place." It was respectable, but, for one who was an investigator, not desirable. I might have tried it, but found on enquiry the price was above my purse, 8d. a night! Hardly a "charity," therefore, though doubtless a boon to more wealthy women.

We determined next to find out (as after repeated enquiry we could hear of no other lodging-house) whether if I had happened to be really stranded in London, I could at that hour get into the tramp ward. I passed down through a crowded street with booths and a market. "Poor thing," said one woman, whom I asked for the "Spital." "Have you got to go there." I escaped questioning, and further on asked again. " Yes, you can get in," — but again the look of pity. I thought it argued badly for my treatment if I went in. I found the place, but did not apply, I found I should have to walk a considerable distance to the tramp ward. I could not on that day enter, not having time to spare for two nights detention, but it was this tramp ward which I afterwards specimened, and my experiences in it justified the pity.

I rejoined my son; we had satisfied ourselves that respectable lodgings for women at my price were at any rate not easily found. Time was passing; we heard there were lodgings in the city. We had already spent over an hour in search, so to save time, we did what a tramp would not, took 'bus to the heart of London. There by the simple expedient of "asking' a bobby," I at once found what I wanted. Up a narrow entry from one of London's well-known thoroughfares was a lodging-house for men, side by side with a lodging-house for "women only." So far good. I need not have my son with me. So about 10 p.m. I sent him for a walk to return before 11 p.m, and entered the court alone. I found that to secure a bed I must go into the men's lodging-house and pay my money — 6d. — to a man who was playing cards with several others. No rude language was used, the men eyed me, that was all. I paid and passed in next door. Upstairs was a small room in which a number of women, all with their hats on save one — the "deputy" — were sitting. Some passed in and out, but being a stranger I was not welcome, and was told to "go forward." This was downstairs; and I found myself, after some turns I cannot remember, in a long low cellar room, with concrete floor, very dirty looking. A window at one end was half underground. A fireplace on the right had bars and hobs, but no oven or range or proper kitchen convenience. This was, however, the living and cooking room. Plenty of garments were hanging up to dry on strings. Under the tables were heaps of dirt and débris. A number of women were present sitting on forms, who seemed to be hawkers, or women gaining some scanty livelihood. The general conditions were much the same as in northern lodging-houses, where 4d. is charged for a bed, only the cooking facilities were poorer and the price was higher. I learned that in London a bed was not easily got under 6d. It took a good bit of getting," one woman said. The sanitary state was no better than in the north, and I was thankful I had not to stay the night. Towards eleven the deputy came with a bunch of keys, calling out "Anyone for bed." I thought it best to escape, and making an excuse rejoined my son.

My remarks on this adventure at a subsequent meeting led to enquiry into the state of this lodging-house. It was reported to be "regularly inspected twice a week and nothing wrong with it." All I can say is that either the visits of the inspector must be expected and prepared for, or, as I have frequently remarked, inspection leads to purblindness. "Anything is good enough for such inmates" comes to be the official view.

Wishing to satisfy myself that I had not been mistaken, and as I had that time no fellow-workers, I got my son subsequently to enter the male side of the same lodging-house. His account not only confirmed mine, but he found things worse than I had stated. The men's side had the same low half cellar, not properly lighted or ventilated, deficient cooking accommodation, dirty floor and débris. In addition, the habit of smoking and spitting rendered the place abominable. The deputy appeared to have no control, indeed, he laughed at extra filthy jests as if they were to be enjoyed. My son said he should have been afraid to specimen the sleeping accommodation. He has visited other lodging-houses — one where a notice is up "Gents are requested not to sleep in their boots"! — a notice often disobeyed. He is acquainted with Rowton Houses. He says this is a particularly bad specimen. So after all my judgment does not appear to have been at fault. A low standard of inspection prevails in many places besides London; but the place itself was unfit for the purpose for which it was used.


Towards six o'clock on a pleasant evening in March, my companion and I found our way to the casual ward of a London workhouse, selected because, on the testimony of Guardians, it was supposed to be well-regulated and ideal. Real beds and porcelain baths, perfect cleanliness and good management would surely afford comfortable conditions. We did not go together, as I was announced to speak publicly and known to take a companion, and it might therefore be difficult to escape detection. But we were, as it happened, the only inmates, save a woman going out in the morning.

The ward was spotlessly clean. The brown bread and gruel, at first glance, not unappetising. Alas! the bread was sour. Food first, and hot bath to follow, wet hair, though more time than usual to dry. Clean nightgown, and actually a bed. So far good.

Locked in at about seven o'clock to solitary meditation, I rejoiced to have found better conditions. Alas! I had not reckoned on the physical effects of the unwholesome combination of the sour bread, followed by hot bath, and backed up by imperfectly dried hair. Before long I was violently sick, and every portion of my first meal returned. In the darkness it was impossible to see if there was any means of communication to beg a welcome drink of water. Presently my friend began coughing and groaning. It seems the effect of the bath and wet head on her was to produce a violent cold, headache, and sore throat. Then in another cell a woman began retching and coughing badly. In the morning we learned she also had been upset by the bath when she entered, but no complaints were noticed. Her cough sounded like asthma or bronchitis, and very bad. We asked her why she did not see a doctor. "No tramps were allowed a doctor," she said. She intended when out to try to get into an infirmary. She had been in three days, and could not eat.

This information, received after we had got up at 5.30, was somewhat disheartening, for we were both ill. Breakfast none of us touched. Our fellow tramp played with hers, pointing at the thick scum on the unappetising gruel (very salt), served in a worn enamel mug, with no spoon. "God alone knows," she said. "They will have to answer for it." She told us she was detained a third night because she had been in another casual ward during the month, and the officer "spotted" her.' She was evidently a regular casual. "They all have to do it" (i.e., to go from ward to ward), she said, describing how other wards were better and how harsh this one vas — and no one came in who could help it. We asked how it was she came in herself. She said she had had "business" in that part of the town, and could not reach another ward. She said she was quite clean, as she had "been down" the previous week-end. She said the treatment had made her ill; at the time we hardly believed her. Later we knew. Seven o'clock, and a summons to work. We began cheerfully under charge of an old woman. But already some conception that we were under a hard task-mistress was dawning upon us. "Be sure you only do what you are told," said the woman. The ward was apparently clean, but the whole must be scrubbed. My portion was to do four cells and a long, long passage leading past eighteen cells (nine on a side), and two bathrooms, and a lavatory with two w.c.'s. Cloths, bucket, and soda were provided, no aprons till later. I had a kneeling pad, my friend none. She was told off to the bathrooms.

It seems such a simple thing to tell that it is hard to convey the real conditions. Presently our task-mistress came round. She was not unkind, but one of those women to whom, in ordinary health, work is a joy in itself, and the utmost scrupulosity of finicking cleanliness a thing to be exacted as a matter of course. For every single detail a standard was to be attained, at whatever cost to flesh and blood. For instance, all blankets to be re-folded to an exact shape, and laid so — no otherwise. To work hard, all day and every day, would probably be to her no task, and the difference between working hard on a full and on a meagre diet had never dawned upon her. Sickness was to be discredited — probably a "dodge" — in any case, the fault of previous misdoings. Work was to be exacted to the very last farthing. Faithfully she did her duty — as she knew it. Nine hours' solid work (five in the morning, four in the afternoon) — that was what the law exacted — and she got it.

Now, to work as a charwoman on a comfortable breakfast, with a pause for lunch, and prospective dinner, and the opportunity to chat and "take your own time" is one thing. To work for a taskmistress with prison in prospect for the slightest shirking — with no pause and no food is quite another. The matron knew I had been very sick — her assistant told her — and also that I had had no food. "That old tramp, whom she couldn't bear," as she told my friend, "had been eating stale fish; that was what made her sick. She could tell that sort, she always knew what people were like." This was so humorous that it decidedly relieved the situation! We compared notes as we refilled buckets, but did not dare to loiter or show knowledge of one another. Walls had ears, or, at any rate, keyholes were handy. So we worked steadily, my friend's fate being worse, as she worked under the taskmistress's eye. She won prime favour, but never, never, in all her working days, had she worked so hard. She cleaned the bathrooms and a whole flight of stairs, and then was put on the private sitting-room, to be done most particularly, not even the old woman attendant could be trusted to do it, it was usually the matron's own work; but she had been ill, and it had "got neglected." How hard my friend laboured she alone can tell. Every inch was gone over many times under the vigilant eyes. Meanwhile, the "old tramp" laboured as diligently as possible — when the eyes were upon her! They detected some signs of "scamping," when her back was turned, so doubtless I was "an old hand!" The fact of the matter was, that without such careful "scamping" I positively could not have sustained the long, long hours of labour. Four bucketsful of water — one for each cell — seven for the long passage, two for lavatory and w.c.'s, brasses to clean, paint to dust. It seemed a Sisyphean task, no sooner ended than a new one was exacted. I wondered if by carefully husbanding strength I could hold out. At dinner-time, twelve o'clock, we stopped for an hour. I could not touch food. My friend, though fresh from the tantalising smell of beef steak and onions, managed to cat a small portion of bread and cheese, washed down by cold water. Our tea and sugar had been confiscated.

Tired! That is no word for it! We had already done a charwoman's day's work. My friend could hardly speak, and I had no strength save to lay my head on the table and wonder how I should survive the afternoon.

One o'clock and hard labour. My friend, on finishing two bedrooms, was put to clean the storeroom. So weary was she, that towards the close even her taskmistress saw that she had overrated her strength, and gave a sign of grace by saying she would help her to finish. Meanwhile, the "old tramp" must do the dayroom — it only served her right for the way she "tickled the boards! "

Five long and very ornamental forms and two long tables, to be scrubbed on every inch of surface to immaculate whiteness with soap and water. The floor to be scrubbed and every place dusted. Kneeling had become such torture that the straining of the body up to scrub the under-surface of the forms almost produced faintness. It must be remembered that all this work was exacted without a particle of food. The matron had come in at dinner-time and seen my food untasted. I told her I could not touch it. She looked at it as if it was some rejected dainty. "What a pity," she said — not at all as if it was a pity I could not eat, but a pity to leave such good food!

Flesh and blood found it hard to bear the long four hours' labour; over and over again I failed quite to please my taskmistress and tried her patience. She confided to my friend that she should have to keep out of the room or lose her temper. She did not recognise the arm growing weary, the heart sick and faint. But she did recognise the work of my friend, and rewarded it by a cup of tea and two slices of bread and butter. To eat these she was shut up in the storeroom, and was by no means to tell "that tramp" how she had been favoured! She did, however, manage to run in and give me a drink of tea, but such was my internal state, that it made me immediately violently sick. This was when work was over, fortunately. For one blessed three-quarters of an hour before I finished the task-mistress was away. She was very suspicious as to how I had done the work in her absence. It passed muster. I did not dare to stop, but certainly "hurried." It was necessary to survive.

At last — five o'clock and respite. We both were more dead than alive. It must be felt to be realised. Again we could not touch the food, but my friend had had a little. Again no notice was taken of any symptoms of illness on my part, but a lozenge was given my friend for her throat, as she was "prime favourite."

At last 5.30, and we might seek bed. My friend was allowed to wear some of her underlinen, as she had been very cold the previous night. The "old tramp" must do as best as she could. What happened was another night of long misery, desperate sickness on an empty stomach — no sounds save the London sounds without, and the groaning and sighing of my tortured friend within, close by in another cell.

Long, long hours; would God it were morning! The cross-bars of the window faintly seen against the sky spoke of the cross that is never absent, of the woes of men and of Him Who is crucified in the least of these, His brethren. When will the long torture of the ages end, and men care for the poor? At last the torment ended — 6.30. It was possible to rinse the mouth with water. Oh, what it is to know thirst and sickness combined!

Every limb ached; my poor friend was no better; her knees were too sore to touch. But soon there would be freedom. We ate no food, of course, — but welcome liberty! To me the worst agony was the last half-hour of patient waiting. No words can tell the passionate longing that seized me to breathe free breaths. No such inward struggle may come to those inured to hard conditions. Yet for them, also, the summer life is free, and for freedom they sacrifice much. Who knows how a tramp feels, save God? At last we are free; our money, tea, and sugar are returned. Shelter and friends are near.

But for them? At this hour a procession of women issues from our casual wards — hundreds, perhaps thousands, all over our land. Their faces are set in the grey dawn — whither? Not to the tramp ward again — not at once — it cannot be borne immediately; later it may be again a necessity. Now anything is preferable. Prison? It has lost its terrors — it cannot be harder.' It is only an incident in life to "go down." Sin? What's the odds? It may pay for a decent bed and food. The river? That is best of all, if one could manage to face it. Silence, oblivion, and the mercy of the God above Who knows. Yet life is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing to behold the sun. To be a beggar is best — spring stirs already — God opens hearts. Food and shelter may be begged as "charity," It is best to fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of man. The vagrant life is sweetest. This is how tramps are made.


The severity of the treatment experienced in this tramp ward was such that it brought on hemorrhage, from which the author had not suffered for years. She was obliged to remain in London ill, and to have medical attendance. Dr. Jane Walker and Mrs. Percy Bunting can vouch for the facts. Her fellow tramp was also ill and did not recover until she had had a complete rest. It was a month before the author regained her strength. If the effects of the treatment were such on those going in with full health and strength (from a life in which food and rest had continued till the last moment) able to return to good food and every comfort, how must the destitute suffer under such treatment? They drift and die, as the awful mortality from common lodging-houses proves.


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