Ancestry UK


by Mary Higgs

A Night in a Salvation Army Shelter was one of a number of undercover excursions made by Mary Higgs into the accommodation available for the homeless poor and destitute, mainly 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" described the unsavoury conditions and treatment that she experienced in a workhouse casual ward. A Night in a Salvation Army Shelter, published the following year, with its clean, comfortable beds and kindly staff, received much praise from Higgs and a hope that such a shelter should be set up in every large town.


Having occasion to spend a week in a southern city, I determined to do what I could to ascertain the condition of its common lodging-houses, in order to find out whether the same problems existed as in the northern towns.

I was willing to go into a women's lodging-house, but, not having my fellow tramp, it was desirable to make enquiries. These enquiries revealed a state of things so bad that I did not feel it was safe to sample any of the common lodging-houses alone. Briefly, what had happened in this old town was this: A certain quarter possessed houses, which, having once been occupied by the better classes, would be fairly roomy, but would, of course, only have the sanitary arrangements intended for one family. These houses had courts at the back, which perhaps had been long ago gardens, but were now built over, access being through the house. A number of these houses had gradually become common lodging-houses. So profitable is this trade, that the successful owner of one, even if only of the same low class as frequent the houses, could go on annexing others, till, as I was told, a whole street had fallen into the possession of one person, who was quite unconcerned about anything but private gain. The most speedy way of gaining wealth was to let rooms, in connection with the lodging-house, "for married couples." The buildings in the back courts could easily be so let, and the police had no access. Therefore the whole of this district was honeycombed with immorality, while even in the more respectable houses the conditions must be filthy and insanitary.

But my surprise was greatest at finding that in H— there did not exist a lodging-house for women only apart from the charitable institutions. The only refuge for a destitute woman, therefore, was the common lodging-house with men and women (ostensibly married). I felt that to go alone into one of these would be like putting my head into a lion's den, for I was told that one of the men had put his arm round the waist of a lady visitor with the easy freedom born of sex relations there prevailing. What must have been the conditions for women in a town of this size before the erection of the Army Shelter some four years ago? The common lodging-houses, poor as they were, afforded shelter, I was assured, only for about seventy women, including those really married. But between service, or respectable occupation of any kind, and the common lodging-house, existed in all its ramifications, like a spider's web, "the life," as a way out of destitution. Only those who fell out of this life through illness or from other causes, as a rule descended to the "lowest depths," the common lodging-houses, which therefore contained only the most abandoned women. Some efforts to reach these were being made, but the helpers despaired of really raising them, and with good cause. It is evident that though hope must not be abandoned for anyone, a woman who has sunk into poverty even out of a life of vice, and who still retains all her desire for it (which she indulges in if it is obtainable) must be a woman out of whom womanhood is perishing, love of drink taking hold in most instances. Yet God forbid that we should judge these poor creatures, often capable of love to one another, and of kindnesses which might make us blush. We do not know what circumstances, for which we may be responsible in God's sight, gave them the push downward.'

But, evidently, unless in this town there were charitable institutions dealing with the problem of destitution among women, a life of vice would be their only alternative, simply from the fact that a certain degree of poverty would force them to lodge with those to whom it was familiar, and they would naturally succumb.'

I had no means of ascertaining what other homes or remedial agencies existed, except that I was told there did exist one other semi-charitable refuge to which the police took girls found on the streets. I gathered, however, that this was more of the nature of a home than of a lodging-house. The municipality was building a large men's lodging-house, but not one for women.

It appeared, therefore, that the only real attempt to tackle the problem was that of the Salvation Army, and, thinking that I should probably hear something from the women themselves about the lodging-houses, I resolved to "try the Army," as so many poor destitute women have done — not in vain.

I obtained the requisite clothing to be one of the poor, and set out, about nine o'clock, to find the street where the Army Shelter was. One thing was agitating my mind, which doubtless, though for a different reason, weighs in the mind of many poor women against entering any kind of charitable Shelter. What questions would they ask? I had determined, if absolutely necessary, to reveal my real identity. But how much should I be forced to tell? Would it be possible to escape personal interrogation? The "bullying" in the Workhouse was fresh in my mind, and in contrast with this the perfect freedom of the common lodging-house has its attractions. You may come and go, and "mind your own business." No one has any right to interfere with you as long as you "pay your way." I did not, of course, expect anything but kindness, but I thought I might be interrogated "personally," questioned as to my antecedents, and possibly about my soul. It would then, of course, be impossible for me to preserve my "incognito."

In thus thinking I was probably sharing the feelings of my poor sisters (your feelings undergo a curious assimilation to those of the class you represent). Many a woman may be deterred from entering a suitable Home by fear of cross-questioning. Poor thing! The only thing that belongs to her is her past.

However, my fears were needless. I only relate them to illustrate the reasons why a woman may hold back from places where she might find friends.

I asked several women the way to the Shelter, whom I met in the street. One said it was "right enough," another said, "I should think it was better than going into the common lodging-house among a lot of ' riff-raff; ' you can put up with it for a night anyhow." A third, with a child in her arms, said she had lived there some time, and "was very comfortable." So encouraged, I found the place. It was a large, clean-looking building, fronting the street, with apparently two doors.

While I was hesitating as to which was the right one, and as to whether I must ring or enter, a man on the other side of the street came and offered me a drink. I, of course, refused. But at the very door of salvation a poor tempted woman might be lost.

There was a large notice, "Clean, comfortable beds," but not an open door as in most common lodging-houses. I feel diffident in recommending anything to the Army, their methods are so tried and proved, even to minute particulars, but it struck me that it would be well to have an inside and an outer door — the latter standing open, as a clear indication of the place of entry. You can walk into a common lodging-house as far as the deputy's room or office without ringing. It is a small matter, but a timid woman might not have the courage to knock or ring.

The door was opened by a pleasant-faced young woman in uniform, who asked me in. One word went to my heart. She called me "my dear!" She said in reply to my request for a bed, "Yes, my dear, we have twopenny bunks, but I should recommend you to try the fourpenny beds with nice, clean sheets."

I was glad to consent, for though I should have liked for some reasons to "try the bunks," I had already seen them in London, and I wished to ascertain what the Army was able to offer at the current price of fourpence, and also whether the beds would bear inspection. But what a contrast such a reception was to the workhouse! Nothing but my name was asked, not even as in the Bradford Shelter, my destination, and where I came from. There was no "heckling," no inquisition, nothing but kindness. God bless the officer who said, "My dear" to a poor stranger in Christ's name.

I was asked if I would like to go to bed, as it was already late. I wanted, however, to see something of other inmates, so said, "No." The officer took me into the fourpenny sitting room, which was pleasant and beautifully clean, but had no fire lit. As it was lonely, the officer asked me if I would like to sit with the "twopenny women" for company. I gladly assented, and was shewn into another day-room in which was a cheerful fire, by the side of which were shelves for pots and pans. It was furnished with wooden tables and benches, and all was clean, except for recent use. Two or three women were in possession. I asked them if I could get anything on the premises to eat. They said I could get coffee and bread and butter for a penny! It was the cheapest meal I ever had. I asked the officer for them, and she fetched them herself — a good mug full of thick brown coffee, with rather a peculiar taste, but similar to some I got in Manchester at a cheap breakfast shop, only about half as much again in quantity. It had sugar and milk in it, and was palatable. With it were two thick slices of bread and butter, quite sufficient for a meal, the butter tasted good.

I sat and ate my supper and watched the other women. They had lived there some time, and were evidently accustomed to "the ways of the place." They said they were very comfortable, and that the beds were good. One of them explained the scarcity of utensils. (So far as I could see, one kettle, one saucepan, and one frying-pan seemed to be the stock-in-trade.) She said people stole so, even taking cups and saucers, and the sheets off the beds. The officers in consequence had to reduce the supply and to keep a sharp look-out!

I sat and listened. A woman came in with a baby; the same woman I had seen in the street. She exclaimed about the difficulty she had had in getting money for the night. Apparently she had been begging, going round to one and another whom she knew, and getting a penny or halfpenny from each. She said the man who accosted me had given her a penny. Her boy was a fine little fellow, very well nourished and contented. She was very proud of his little fat legs! She undressed him to his shirt. One bit of pride remained even in poverty. She said she "wouldn't let her child sleep in a bunk!" She seemed to prefer being out all night, which had, I believe, been her case recently, when she could not make her bed-money.' She was a widow.

One of the other women had had a day's Charing, and was congratulating herself that she was "set up for a bit." It had been hard work, but well paid. She was generous to those worse off.

An unsolicited testimonial to one of the officers was given. "Captain is back to-day." "Is she, bless her; I do love that woman, though she never gave me anything! "

It is much to the credit of the Army, and of the individual officers, that in the free conversation I heard no real complaint. One of the officers was alluded to as "a sharp 'un." No doubt a necessary quality in dealing with some cases. One woman grumbled at the coffee, and another "carried on" because she was stopped from talking in the bedroom, where she was disturbing others, but the general feeling seemed to be one of thankfulness. "Thank God I have got in to-night," came involuntarily from several lips.

I resolved to go to bed, as it was ten o'clock. The officer who had admitted me, when I went to her to ask, showed me upstairs into a large light room. Apparently the building had once been a mill or warehouse.

The floor was beautifully clean, the beds not inconveniently crowded, and the promise of "good, clean beds" was amply redeemed. I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a night-gown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

My bed was beautifully clean, and the others looked so. The most careful arrangements were made to insure cleanliness. The wire mattress had a piece of clean brown wrappering tied over it, which could be removed and washed. The mattress, which was very comfortable, was covered, and under the covering was a mackintosh. There were two thick dark blankets, not divided. I suppose this would make it difficult to steal them. The sheets were white, and so was the pillowslip. There was a good soft flock pillow.

I noticed several wise precautions. The gases were too high to be reached, and no taps were visible. The gas was turned on or off outside the room. No one could light a pipe.

The crevices close to the wall were filled in with wood, so that insects could not harbour. Each person had a well-scrubbed wooden box by the bedside, on or in which to place their clothes. There was, in a lavatory adjoining, a spacious sink, to which hot and cold water was laid on. There was one roller-towel, but no soap. It is usual in lodging-houses to find your own. There was a well-flushed w.c. Beyond were some cubicles at sixpence a night.

Several women were in bed. One had had some drink, and was disturbing others by talking. It was found out afterwards that she was in the wrong room, having only paid twopence. She was a married woman, and her husband had apparently deposited her in safety, but only paid twopence! She was, or pretended to be, very wroth, and she was also foul-mouthed. When it was discovered, the little Lieutenant really could not eject her, and had to be satisfied with telling her she must pay the other twopence next day!

It was a very interesting occupation to try for about an hour and a half to gather from conversation some hints as to the character of the "waifs and strays" who were temporarily my room-mates.

A young woman next me was a servant temporarily out of place. An amusing scene took place. Another young woman came in and spoke to her before going to her cubicle. Evidently there was some animosity between them, for the only greeting she got was, "Shut up." Finding she could make no impression, the new-comer began to insinuate.

" I wouldn't stand with the Army and then go into public-houses! "

The other girl at first made no reply, except, "Get out with you! "

But as the insinuation was repeated, she began to get wroth.

" Why don't you speak to me, Mary? "

She half sat up in bed.

" Get out with you, you who needed a helping hand. Few realise how terribly hard the present conditions of our social system press upon women. If a girl, a woman, or worse — a mother and child — are forced to remain out all night, God pity them. Yet it is terribly hard for a woman, once down in the friendless state, with no one to speak for her, with clothing getting daily more dirty and ragged, to obtain any employment. What can the widow do? What about the deserted wife? The cry of the widow and orphan, the suffering of the friendless is daily before the eyes of the God England professes to serve.

Only one who is daily receiving the stories of the manifold ways in which women drop out or are forced out of homes, can understand the silent disintegration of womanhood that is forced upon many. Sometimes they are carefully reared, with a parent's love as protection, shielded from any real knowledge of life's hardships. But the protector dies and the struggle begins, a hard struggle for daily bread. No one is forced to keep them, save the workhouse. This they shun, or in some cases have extreme difficulty in gaining admission, the relieving officers having to be "begged and prayed," sometimes unsuccessfully, to admit even a starving woman, putting them off on one excuse or another.

Meanwhile, by degrees everything that can be turned into money goes for food. What wonder that the poor soul, desperate at losing all that makes life worth having, easily yields to the man ever ready to "treat" her? Such men are everywhere.

" Come and get a drink," is the usual way of accosting a woman. Yet if a solitary woman once acquires the drink habit, it is nearly impossible to lift her up, the craving is too strong. In the temporary "elevation" of drink she regains her past, forgets the poor bedraggled "low woman" she has become, and dreams of "better days." Suppose she resists drink, at any rate keeping apparently steady, and lives as a "charwoman," it is a most precarious existence, varying with the "times." Such women are taken "on" and sent "off" without compunction. It needs a "good connection" to make a livelihood, at any rate it requires a capacity for continuous hard work, which all do not possess. There are some few trades for destitute women hardly worth calling "trades," yet in some hand-to-mouth fashion thousands of solitary women exist, who are not idle, but try hard to "keep out of the house," so retaining their last possession — liberty! Is it not desirable that these our struggling sisters should live under the conditions that will preserve for them some sort of a "home" feeling?

The "pit" lies just beneath them, that terrible pit, where honour, love, and womanhood are swallowed up. They cling to those who love them, and many of them struggle, oh, so hard! just to keep afloat. God pity them! Every night in this England of ours our sisters are driven by poverty to sin.

" I must get my lodging money and a bit of food," they say. Money, even twopence, is not within the reach of every widow and orphan, and our poor-law conditions are almost prohibitive. Save as a temporary expedient, the casual ward, with its continual "move on," is no refuge. To descend to the common lodging-house is the last stage, just above utter homelessness. There the drink temptations are such that few women can withstand them. In many towns there do not exist lodging-houses for women only.

Yet above all, these women need to be protected, to live under good sanitary conditions, if in poverty. Such a shelter, therefore, as I was sleeping in, is a real social need. It would prevent countless women from drifting into vice if there was somewhere for them to live out of temptation during the night hours. As they grow old especially, their state grows more and more pitiable. They end their days in the workhouse usually, but stave off the evil day as long as they can. I do not believe that even women from the higher ranks can well help drifting to destitution if from any cause friends and foothold are lost. Most people distrust a friendless woman. Yet in many cases it is a matter of clothes!

There is a theory that "a good worker is always worth her salt!" So she may be, but if she looks down-trodden no one will give her the chance to earn it! In spite of the constant dearth of servants it is not likely that a woman will get employment unless she has character and clothes. There are, besides, quantities of semi-" unemployable" women, women who would — after a fashion — succeed in looking after their own home and rearing children; but who, divorced from home, are not "worth their salt." Besides these, preyed upon, alas! by human sharks, are the defenceless "feebleminded," and half-imbecile.

Meditating on the woes of womanhood I fell asleep. All my sisters apparently slept soundly and well. Very early the officer in charge stole in to call a sleeper. Every now and then someone, self-roused, got up for toil. It was a contrast to the heavy sleep and utter absence of any provision for going forth to toil which I had seen in a private women's lodging-house, inhabited by girls and women evidently living by sin.' There they were called at 9.30!

By 6.30 a considerable number had got up, and promptly the lieutenant appeared with a whistle, which she playfully blew, not only for the room, but also near each sleeper, calling them by name. "Now, Mary, get up!" "Now, Jane, don't go to sleep again!

So I also arose and found my way to the sitting-room, where a woman was frying a chop (using a lot of unnecessary sticks). It was the woman who was "in luck." She made a great can of tea, and shared with others, especially with some of the mothers with children. Poor little things! They looked sleepy, for most had not gone to bed much before eleven.

One by one women came in, hawkers, cleaners, widows, about whom one wondered how they kept afloat. Some were evidently very dirty, insect pests were in evidence on the person, and it was surprising that the place was so clean. I learnt that you might remain till ten, and re-enter at twelve. Probably the necessary cleansing of the day-rooms was done in the interval, The kitchen filled. All seemed very poor; some had no breakfast save a borrowed drink. I had some dry bread and sugar, but no tea, so I asked if I could get a penny breakfast.

Yes! Early as it was, the officers were already in the kitchen, and at seven o'clock breakfast could be obtained. I sat and waited. Three mothers had children; one brought down in a shift was badly bitten. One woman was to wash for "the Army" that day, and so was "in luck." There was, I heard, a good laundry, and under certain regulations, inmates could wash their clothes.

It would not have been a bad bit of investigation to stay a week and learn the life of the inmates. But my time was brief. I made one of a string of women standing at the kitchen door, waiting for the penny breakfast, and received in my turn a good cup of tea (not a mug, but a cup and saucer) and two thick slices of bread and butter. The eating habits of my friends in the twopenny room were not very appetising, so I sought the fourpenny room, a plain, clean, sitting-room with spotless table and forms, by this time nearly filled.

The inmates of this room were, as might be expected, superior in dress and manners; the personal appearance of most was clean, and they were fairly well clothed, at least outwardly, but the night view had shewn me that "appearances were deceitful."

One poor woman had a baby in arms, five months old. Her husband had cruelly ill-used her; she had a black eye. He had been sent to prison for a month, and she, with feeble health, and a babe in her arms, had come to this refuge. How would she fare in a common lodging house?

Another mother, with a good face, but very poor, had a little boy, very nicely mannered. She made him say grace before he took his food, and reproved him for taking a bite first out of a piece of bread and butter, given him by a kindly girl who had gone in for a whole pennyworth. This woman looked as if the Army had claimed her life for God. She was going to a day's cleaning, and said thankfully that she had a good place, and more than she could eat, so she always brought something "home" for her boy, "as she couldn't bear to think she was eating and he had none." I suppose she would make some arrangement for him to be looked after. How would he fare in a common lodging house?

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

Several of the girls were quite young, and might he servants out of place. One by one they went out to some occupation or other. It was still early, but time for me to go. I returned my cup, saucer, and plate, and passed out with no interrogation.

The streets were full of young women just going to business. In the free life of to-day, when so many women earn their own living, often away from their homes, how slight an accident may shipwreck a life! Is it not evident that we should make provision for such a certain need? We make charts of our coasts, we know each shoal, we hell-buoy our sand-banks, we build warning lighthouses, and we make safe harbours. But probably the lives lost on our coasts are not a tithe of the lives — the souls — lost on our streets. A floating shipwrecked woman immersed in the waves, in peril of death, would call for a host of rescuers. But in many towns in England there is no Rescue home. Even where there are such homes, they are usually for those who have gone under. We need some provision for those who manage to keep themselves just above water, but are in daily peril. Nothing is so effective as such preventive work. If we were about to build a harbour, we should entrust the work to a firm that understood harbour-building.

In the Salvation Army we have a branch of the Christian Army and Navy of Salvation accustomed to harbour-building. Let us employ them. If Army methods succeed, it is only common-sense to finance the firm that can do the work!

Many of our refuges are but ill adapted for the needs of the class that most needs help, the struggling, self-supporting woman, who may be kept from falling further.

We must approximate, as the Army does, to the needs of the class we cater for. We must have "Women's Hostels" for the needs of various classes, under regulations that attract them. We need not bribe them into what seems to be a species of imprisonment, and keep them expensively for long terms. This may be necessary for the fallen, but not for preventive work.

The Army succeeds better than most in making its shelters almost self-supporting, when once initial expenses have been met. It has an immense advantage in its system of training officers specially for such work, which requires daily self-sacrifice.

It may also be that military discipline has its advantages where a certain precision of detail, an invariable routine, similar to workhouse regulations, but more free, is a sine qua non. In our workhouses large bodies of people live under discipline, who, without it, would most of them be a danger or a drag on the community. Could we induce the "floating population" of men and women to live a less restricted life, yet a sanitary and wholesome one, much would be accomplished in a generation." The policy of allowing the catering for the needs of this class to drift in a "happy-go-lucky" way into the hands of anybody, has resulted in many accumulated evils. To redress evil we must live the self-sacrificing life, and we may think ourselves happy that there are still men and women who will in a very real sense "lay down their lives" to minister in Christ's name to His poor, who count nothing too trivial to be well done for the Master, and who strive to unlock hearts by the magic key of love.

Surely upon them rests the blessing, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these, my sisters, ye have done it unto Me." Can we not have an Army Women's Shelter or its equivalent in every large town?


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