South London - Part VIII - South London of To-Day by Walter Besant, Pall Mall Magazine, Vol XVI, 1898


Snow's Fields, BermondseyThe expansion of London during the nineteenth century is in itself a fact unparalleled in the history of cities. Those who call attention to this miracle always point to the filling up of the huge area between Highgate and Hampstead and Clerkenwell, on the North, or the extension of the town to Hammersmith on the West. Perhaps a little consideration of the South may show a still more remarkable growth. I have before me a map of the year 1834, only sixty-four years ago, showing South London as it was. I see a small town, or a collection of small towns, occupying the district called the Borough Proper: Lambeth, Newington, Walworth, and Bermondsey. In some parts this area is densely populated, filled with narrow courts and lanes. In other parts there are broad fields, open spaces, unoccupied pieces of ground. At the back of Vauxhall Gardens, for instance, there are open fields; in Walworth there is a certain place then notorious for the people who lived there, called Snow’s Fields; in Bermondsey there are also open spaces, some of them gardens or recreation grounds, without any buildings. Battersea is a mere stretch of open country. I myself remember the old Battersea fields perfectly well: one shivers at the recollection; they were low, flat, damp, and, I believe, treeless: they were crossed, like Hackney Marsh, by paths raised above the level. At no time of year could the Battersea fields look anything but dreary; in winter they were inexpressibly dismal. As a boy I have walked across the fields in order to get to the embankment or river-wall, from which one commanded a view of the Thames, with its barges and lighters going up and down—pleasant when the sun shone on the river, but a mere shadow of the ancient glory, when the pleasure barges and state barges swept majestically up the river with the hautboys and the trumpets in the bows; when the swans by thousands sailed upon the broad bosom of the waters, and in the middle of the river the fisherman cast his net, as Edric had done fifteen hundred years before at St. Peter’s orders, when he brought out his famous salmon. One walked along the embankment: the fields on one side were lower than the waters on the other. Beyond the river were the trees of Chelsea Hospital. Close to the river bank was an enclosure which was called the Subscription Ground: here the subscribers came to shoot pigeons — noble sport! If I remember aright, while the subscribing sportsmen shot at the pigeons in the enclosure, others of low condition, who were not subscribers, lurked about on the outside to shoot down those birds which escaped from the murderers within. Close by the Subscription Ground was a certain famous tavern called the Red House. I do not know why it was famous, but everybody always said it was. I believe it was much frequented on summer evenings, and that the subscribing sportsmen close by, whether they hit their pigeon or not, proved excellent customers for the drinks of the Red House. At that time there were "famous“ taverns all up and down the river on either bank. There are still riverside taverns, but the invasion of the new streets and houses has driven them, considered as “famous” taverns, either higher up or lower down. As mere commonplace public houses they probably remain still. Famous things, however, were done in the Battersea Fields, and there were certain historical associations in connection with these dreary flats. Here, for instance, the Duke of Wellington fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea. Other important people were also connected either with the fields or the village of Battersea, but at the time I knew not anything about them. The Battersea of my boyhood is gone absolutely: no trace of it remains, except the church. The Grosvenor railway bridge passes over the site of the famous Red House; the most beautiful of all our parks covers the Subscription Shooting Grounds, together with most of the flat and dreary fields; and houses by the thousand, with streets mean and monotonous, stand where formerly the pigeons flew wildly, hoping to escape those who waited outside the grounds as they had escaped those who potted at them from within.

St Saviour's DocksLet us turn to another part of the map and enquire into Rotherhithe. It is curious that at one end we get Rotherhithe, the Place of Cattle, and at the other Lambeth or Lamb hythe – if it be the Place of Lambs and not the Place of Mud. In 1834 the Commercial Docks are already there, but without prejudice to the ancient and venerable docks of the preceding century, Acorn Dock and Lavender Dock. A single street runs along the embankment, which it hides and covers: at the back of this street there is a succession of small lanes and and courts running back with tiny houses – two or four rooms to each – on either side and ending generally in gardens of greenery – leaves and palings.You may still see, in 1898, if you are lucky, the bows and bowsprit of a ship in one of the old docks sticking across the street, causing a momentary confusion in the mind, between land and water: there are riverside taverns, which look as if at a touch they would yield and slide into the mud below. In 1834, this street, with these little lanes, was the whole of Rotherhithe. Inland – or in-marsh – ponds and ditches and stagnant streams lay about. One of the ponds survives to this day: you will find it in the middle of the pretty garden they call Southwark Park, of which it forms the ornamental water. And the rest of Rotherhithe, between the Park and Bermondsey, is one unbroken mass of streets, with no green thing and no open space. All is filled up and built upon.

A little beyond Rotherhithe lies Deptford. On my map of 1834 I see a little town, partly on the bank of the Thames, partly on the bank of the Ravensbourne, which here widens and forms Deptford Creek. The greater part of the area of Deptford is taken up by the Dockyard, not yet closed. As for the town, which now contains nearly 100,000 people, about five-and-twenty little streets sufficed for all its people: it boasted of two churches and two almshouses. One of these Havens of Rest was so picturesque and so beautiful that it could not be suffered to remain. Almshouses which are perfectly beautiful are only vouchsafed to man for a limited period, lest other buildings become intolerable: their time expired, they are then carried off Heavenwards.

Or turn your eyes farther south. London in this direction now covers, for the most part completely – in some parts leaving spaces and fields here and there – Greenwich, Blackheath, Brockley, Peckham, Forest Hill, Dulwich, Brixton, Stockwell, Camberwell, Clapham, Balham, Wandsworth, Vauxhall, Penge, and many others.

Red Cross Gardens, SouthwarkIt is difficult, now that the whole country south of London has been covered with villas, roads, streets and shops, to understand how wonderful for loveliness it was until the builder seized upon it. When the ground rose out of the great Lambeth and Bermondsey Marsh – the cliff, or incline, is marked still by the names of Battersea Rise, Clapham Rise, and Brixton Rise – it opened out into one greasy common after another, now all gone but one: Kennington, Norwood, Rush Common, Stockwell, South Lambeth, Half-Moon Green, Knight's Hall Green; and, after, into one wild heath after another – Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney, Wimbledon, Barnes, Tooting, Streatham, Richmond, Thornton, and so south as far as Banstead Downs. The country was not flat: it rose at Wimbledon to a high plateau; it rose at Norwood to a chain of hills; between the heaths stretched gardens and orchards; between the orchards were pasture lands; on the hill sides were hanging woods; villages were scattered about, each with its venerable church and its peaceful churchyard; along the high roads to Dover, Southampton, and Portsmouth, bumped and rolled all day and all night the stage coaches and the waggons; the wayside inns were crowded with those who halted to drink, those who halted to dine, and those who halted to sleep; if the village lay off the main road, it was as quiet and as secure as the town of Laish. All this beauty is gone – we have destroyed it; all this beauty has gone for ever – it cannot be replaced. And on the South there was so much more beauty than on the North. On the latter side of London there are the heights, with Hampstead, Highgate, and Hornsey – one row of villages; but there is little more. The country between Hatfield or St Albans and Hampstead is singularly dull and uninteresting; it is not until one reaches Hertford or Rickmansworth that we come once more into lovely country. But the loveliness of South London lay almost at the very doors of London; one could walk into it: the heaths were within an easy walk; and the loveliness of Surrey lay upon all.

Look at Dulwich – the peaceful and picturesque village of Dulwich, on this map of 1834. It lies among its trees, its gardens, and its fields; the venerable college of Alleyn is the glory of the village; nothing more beautiful than this almshouse, with its hall and its picture gallery. Yet the people flocked out to Dulwich less for the picture gallery than for the shady walks, the fields, and a certain tavern—the Greyhound—which was beloved by everybody, and believed to contain a particular brew of beer, a particular kind of Old Jamaica for punch, a particular vintage of port not to be found anywhere else, even in a City Company’s cellars. There was, in fact, no more favourite place of resort for the better sort of citizens of London than Dulwich in the summer. For the poorer sort it was too far off, and cost too much in conveyance. The Dulwich stage ran two or three times a day; it was not too long a drive from the City. The young men rode—in those days the young men could all ride—even John Gilpin thought he could ride; they hired a horse as we now get into a cab. For those who lived in any suburb on the South, Dulwich was an easy walk. Not far from the college and the village—Mr Pickwick lived there in 1834—were the Dulwich fields, as beautiful and interesting as those of Battersea were the contrary; there were, I think, five of them in succession. The little stream called the Effra rose somewhere in the neighbourhood, and ran about winding through the fields in a deep channel, with rustic bridges across. In older days—at the end of the eighteenth century, for example—the Effra, a bright and sparkling stream, ran out of the fields above what is now called the Effra Road, and so along the south side—or was it the north?—of Brixton Road. Rustic cottages stood on the other side of the stream, with flowering shrubs—lilac, laburnum, and hawthorn—on the bank, and beds of the simpler flowers in the summer; the gardens and the cottages were approached by little wooden bridges, each provided with a simple rail, painted green. That, however, was before my time. In the fifties the boys used to play in these fields, jumping over the stream; when they left the fields and got into the village, they looked about for Mr Pickwick and for Sam Weller, if haply they might see either. But I do not learn that either Sage or Servant ever gratified those eyes of faith by an incarnation.

Here are three hills close together: Herne Hill, Denmark Hill, and Champion Hill. On Denmark Hill Ruskin once lived; but in the fifties I was not conscious of that fact, or of his greatness. It must be saddening to a great man to reflect that none of the boys have any respect for him. The road up the hill was somewhat gloomy on account of the trees; the houses, with their gardens and lawns and carriage drives, and smoothness and smugness, betokened in those years the institution of Evening Prayers. I fear I may be misunderstood. At that time great was the power and the authority of seriousness. To be serious was fashionable, if one may say so; in city circles respectability was nearly always serious: it was divided into two classes—that which had morning prayers only, and that which had evening prayers as well. With the young, the latter institution was unpopular—no one of the present younger generation can understand how unpopular it was; a house which had evening prayers made a deliberate profession of a seriousness which was something out of the common, which the young people disliked, as a rule; and it insisted on the sons getting home in time for prayers. This profession of seriousness generally belonged to a large house, beautiful gardens, rich conservatories, a large income, and a carriage and pair. Denmark Hill used to appear to outward view as more especially a suburb belonging to the serious rich, who could afford a profession of more than common earnestness.

Herne Hill was remarkable for consisting of three houses only, each with its parklike grounds and gardens, and its noble trees. Champion Hill I remember as a green and grassy slope; there were no houses at all upon it, but there was a road; and at the bottom of the road a green, called Goose Green—you may still find this tract of grass, but I believe it is now pinched and attenuated. On Goose Green they kept ponies for hire; the boys used to ride them up the hill, and gallop them down the hill. Beyond this green there was a much larger expanse, called Peckham Rye: so far as I can remember, it was a most uninviting place formerly; not a wild heath, like Putney or Hampstead, not a waste place covered with fern and gorse and bramble and wild trees—but a barren, dreary expanse of uncertain grass. Boys would perhaps have played cricket upon it in summer, but there were then no boys at Peckham Rye. Now all this country is covered with houses, and Peckham is like Bloomsbury itself for streets and terraces and squares.

We have not only destroyed the former beauty of South London: we have forgotten it. Ask a resident of Penge—one of the many thousands of Penge— what this suburban town was like seventy years ago. Do you think he can tell you anything of Penge Common? Has he ever heard of any Penge Common? Well, it is exactly seventy years ago – viz. in May 1827—that Mr William Hone, the compiler of the “Every-Day Book,” climbed up outside the Dulwich stage, proposing to visit the Picture Gallery of Dulwich College. Hone was one of the first of those curious and inquisitive persons who began to employ a summer day in exploring the unknown villages and strange places round London. The Picture Gallery he could not see, because it was closed; he therefore walked across the country from Dulwich to a place called Penge. At the top of a hill he found a choice of three roads. He chose that which led through Penge Common. The place was thickly wooded: it was, he says, “a cathedral of singing birds”; at the mere recollection of that choir he bursts into verse—other people’s verse. Alas the Common had already, even then, been ravished from its owners, the people: it was enclosed; it was doomed; it was about to be built upon. Mr Hone consoled himself however, at the “Old Crooked Billet” with eggs and bacon and home brewed ale. Again, is there any one in Penge who now remembers the hanging woods? They hung over a hill side, and were as beautiful as the hanging woods of Clifeden. But, like the Common, they are gone.

Or let us ask the resident of Norwood what he remembers of its ancient glories—whether there were any ancient glories. Has he heard of the famous Norwood oak? of the Norwood spa? of the gipsies of Norwood? Why, the Queen of all the Gipsies, unless there was a more powerful sovereign at Jedburgh, held her court and camp at Norwood! Has this resident heard of the views from the top of the hill, four hundred feet above the level of the sea, whither the people flocked by hundreds to see the view and to wander in the woods?

All this beauty is destroyed: of course the destruction was inevitable—one accepts the inevitable with a sigh; we cannot have town and country together. The woods are gone, the rural life is gone; encroachments have been made upon the commons; the wayside tavern—the place was full of wayside taverns—is gone. What remains of all this beauty is a fragment here and there. Clapham Common, once a heath, now a park; Wimbledon Common, Tooting Common—these expanses are mercifully left us for breathing-places. Some of them, like Clapham, are transformed into imitations of a park instead of being left as heath: all of them are bereft, of course, of their old accompaniments: they have lost the wood beside the heath, the farm, the ploughed lands, the tinkle of the sheep-bell, the song of the skylark.

We have seen in the course of these chapters some of the associations of South London. I confess that, for my own part, I am now happy in considering associations connected with rows of terraces and villas. Here, you say, was once the house, with the park, of such and such a great man. Really!—I dare say. But it is now covered with gentility. If I am taken to a slum—such a slum as that on the west of St Mary Overies—and am told that in this place was Winchester House, I am at once interested. Why should the memory of the past appeal to our imagination more in a slum than in a brand-new spick-and-span collection of pleasant country villas? Is it from a feeling that all things tend to decay and that the new suburb speaks not of decay? Who, for instance, stepping from the south-east corner of Tooting Common into the place which was once Streatham Park, can think of Mrs Thrale and Dr. Johnson among these roads and villas? At Tooting itself one might remember, were it not for the houses, Daniel De Foe, who founded the first Independent Chapel there. At Wandsworth, if it were not so much built upon, I might see Voltaire walking about; at Putney, but for the villas, I should look for Pitt. Oh there are a thousand people once living and walking and playing their parts in their villages, whose wraiths and spectres would willingly haunt them still, but cannot for the bricks and the walls, the chimneys and the smoke, the roads and the trams. We have destroyed the beauty of South London; we have made its historical associations impossible.

The first settlers or colonisers of this region, apart from its rural folk, came from London about the time when roads began to be tolerable—that is to say, late in the seventeenth century; they were the great folk, the leisured folk, the Quality, who had suburban houses in addition to their town houses and their country houses. They sought shelter in the quiet retreats of Clapham, Streatham or Norwood. These people did not come, however, to settle, but only remained, as a rule, for a year or two; for a few months; for a season. When the roads became so far improved as to make driving easy and pleasant, the City merchants came and built or bought big houses and drove in and out every day in their carriage and pair. They did not buy estates, as a rule they bought a substantial house and grounds, and sat down therein; they had large gardens behind, with greenhouses where they grew early strawberries; they had in front a broad lawn with a carriage drive; they liked to have on the lawn two stately cedars, whose branches swept the grass; they brought their friends down from Saturday to Monday. In course of time other people came; but the first comers – the merchants – were the Aristocracy, the First Families of the suburbs. In the newer places there are still to be found the First Families; in the older suburbs they have all disappeared from the place. Thus Clapham, I believe, knows no longer a Macaulay, a Wilberforce, a Thornton, a Venn. These were people of national distinction: of course there were not in other suburbs First Families who rose to the giddy heights attained by these fortunate aristocrats of the suburbs; but there were many which had among them ex-Lord Mayors and Aldermen: there were many persons among them of dignity and authority. Alas! the First Families are gone; there is now no aristocracy of the suburb left. It is a pity. There should be in every community some whose position entitles them to respect and authority; there should be some to take the lead naturally; there should be some who should maintain the standards of conduct, ideas, and principles. Especially is this the case when by far the greater part of the people in a community are engaged in trade.

From the Tower of St Saviour'sI cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages in 1801 and that of these great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. Battersea has risen from 3365 to 165,115; Camberwell from 7059 to 253,076; Lambeth from 27, 985 to 295,033; Lewisham from 4007 to 104,521; Wandsworth from 14,283 to 187,264. Or, taking the whole area of South London, that part which is covered by the Electoral Districts, there is now a population of very nearly two millions; in other words, the population, in less than a hundred years, has been multiplied by ten. That of London itself – the London including the City, Clerkenwell, Whitechapel, Bloomsbury and Westminster – has been multiplied during the same time by five. What has caused this enormous increase in South London? Well, people must live somewhere; the old limits proved insufficient first, places which had been dotted over with fields and gardens and vacant places, such as Southwark on the west side and Bermondsey, were completely built over and inhabited; then, when it became a problem how to stow away the people within reach of their work, the “short stage” was supplemented by the omnibus. Next, South London stretched itself out farther: it began to include Camberwell, Brixton, Stockwell, Clapham and Wandsworth. These were separate suburbs lying each among its own gardens; the inhabitants were not clerks, but principals, employers, substantial merchants and flourishing shopkeepers. The clerks lived nearer London, mostly on the north of the river. Lastly came the railway, when London made another step outward so as to take in the places lying south of Clapham and Brixton. Then the builder began: he saw that a new class of residents would be attracted by small houses and low rents. The houses sprang up as if in a single night, streets in a month, churches and chapels in a quarter. The population of South London no longer consists of rich merchants, principals and partners. Clerks, assistants and employees of all kinds now crowd the morning and evening trains.

If you want to form some idea of the South London folk, go and stand inside Cannon Street station and watch the trains come in, each with its freight of those who earn their daily bread within the City. See them pass out—by the hundred, by the thousand, by the fifty thousand. The brain reels at the mere contemplation of this mighty multitude which comes in every morning and goes out every afternoon. As they hurry past, you observe on each the same expression—the same set eagerness—with which the day’s work is approached. Employer or employee, principal or clerk, it matters nothing. The clerk, who will get none of the thousands he is helping to secure, comes in to town as eager for the fray as his master: the fighting instinct is in the man; his face means battle, daily battle, in which the weapons are superior knowledge, earlier knowledge, keen sight, readiness, ruthlessness; while there is as much need, for success, of courage, tenacity and bluff as in any battle between contending armies. The many twinkling feet pass out of the station by the hundred thousand, every morning, to the field of battle. The English are a warlike people: they enjoy the field of battle; the City is like that state of beatitude which the pious Dane desired, in which there would be fighting every day and all day and for ever.

In South London there are two millions of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad, but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers, magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centres, unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm—one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of a very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs; it has no public buildings; it has no West End. It is argued that, although it has none of these things, yet it has them all by right of being a part of London. That is, in a sense, true. The theatres, concerts, picture galleries of the West End are accessible to the South. Far be it from me to deny the culture of Sydenham and the artistic elevation of Tooting. Yet one feels there must surely be some disadvantage in being separated from the literary and artistic circles whose members, it must be confessed, reside for the most part in North London. It must surely, one thinks, be a disadvantage for a young man who would pursue a career in Art not to live among people who habitually talk of Art and think of Art. It must surely be some disadvantage to live in a place where the people, when they are gathered together, mostly allow the conversation to turn upon things connected with the City.

How are these two millions distributed?

There are, in fact, four layers. First, there is the “submerged” element—the people of the slums, of which mention has been made. Their numbers and their proportion to the whole I know not. Next, there are the working people, those for whom the long lines—the endless lines—of barracks, called model lodging-houses, have been built. Here they live by the hundred thousand—by the million: there are more than a million working men in South London. For their use are the shops of the Borough, chiefly provision shops, and the public-houses. The third layer is found on a slip of ground, of which Newington and Kennington may be taken as representative; it consists principally of lodging-houses for clerks, The fourth layer is that of the suburban villa, from the little semi-detached cottage to the stately mansion. The “High Street,” filled with shops, is for the villas.

TADMOR, OR PALMYRA

An ancient city now lying splendidly ruinous in south-central Syria, 130 miles north east of Damascus.

The city, under Roman control from at least the time of Tiberius (AD 14-37) was declared a civitas libera, "free city" by the emperor Hadrian and later granted the title of colonia with exemption from taxes by the emperor Caracalla.

As a major trade centre the city became very prosperous during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

Under the rule of Zenobia the armies of Palmyra conquered most of Anatolia (Asia Minor) in 270 AD and the city declared its independence from Rome. However, the Roman emperor Aurelian regained Anatolia in 272 and razed Palmyra the following year.

All that remain are ruins in the wilderness.


Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica
Now, the whole of this immense population lives upon the City. The breadwinners go in and out every day; the local shops provide for the houses, and are paid out of the money made in the City; the local doctor, the local house-agent, the local schoolmaster, the local clergyman, all receive their share of the money made in the City; even if there be here and there a literary man, his wares are bought by the money made in the City; the artist looks for his patrons to the City; the working man, whatever his work, is paid out of the City; so that the first function of the City is to feed and supply all these millions. If at any time the trade of the City were to decay, these suburbs would decay as well; if the decay were gradual, they would slowly cease to spread—begin to show empty houses and deserted streets; if the decay were to mean ruin, the suburbs would themselves be speedily deserted. Then would be seen a deserted city on a scale never before equalled. Tadmor in the Wilderness would be a mere little wheelbarrow-full of stones compared with Suburban London given over to decay and wreck.

Two millions of people, most of whom belong to the working class. The brain reels at thinking of this teeming multitudinous life—these armies of men, women, and children living in the slums and in the huge, unlovely barracks. The very number makes it impossible to grasp the enormity of the mass; the vastness of the population makes one feel as if individual effort would be absolutely useless. In a sense it is useless, because it can only touch one or two, and what are they among so many? But in another sense, as I will presently show, individual effort may produce consequences both deep and widespread.

It seems, again, when one contemplates this mass of humanity, this compact round ball of men and women, to make which two millions have been brought together, as if any one life was nothing: as if the life of any one out of the heap—any girl, any lad—was wholly unimportant and trivial, however that life were spent. That is not so: every heap is made up of atoms; the influence of the individual is as great in a densely populated place as in a village; one example is precious—beyond all price—in a model dwelling-house of Bermondsey as in the most retired community of rustics. It is very easy to generalise from the mass: the dweller of the slums stands before the mind’s eye, beery, unwashed: in rags, inarticulate; his brain filled with thoughts which may better be described as suspicions; desirous of nothing but of food, drink, and warmth. That is what we think of him. It is because we do not know him. Ask those who go down among these people habitually: they will tell you of differences and distinctions among them as among ourselves; of memories of better things; of resignation rather than despair; and at the very worst of traits of generosity and unselfishness worthy of a clean cottage and the air of a village green. We must be very careful how we form general conclusions about men and women.

But—two millions of people! And every one of them wanting all the time what he thinks will make his life more happy. For the riverside folk the wants are few, but they are daily wants. With them, literally, it is a question of daily bread. Happy are the people whose wants are more numerous and their happiness more complex!

Entrance gate to Guy's HospitalLet me terminate this chapter by a brief account of certain work of a philanthropic kind which is characteristic of the place and of the time. Many and various are the attempts, and the associations, and the machinery for raising some of these people and for keeping others from sliding down. There are the parish clergy, of late years better organised than at any previous time; more active, and more largely assisted; they have planted evening schools and clubs for boys and girls: one must put the Church of England first, not only because her clergy began the work of rescue, but also because hers is still the larger part. There is, next, the indirect work of the medical students of Guy’s and St. Thomas’s, who go in and out among the worst courts, tolerated because they come to doctor the sick, and not to ask disagreeable questions about the children’s school. There are, next, places which aim at civilising by the presentation of things civilised. For instance, there is a very pleasing Institute in Whitecross Street, where a garden, an open-air band, a lecture or concert hall, and a row of cottages beautiful to look upon are provided as a standard to which the people may rise by degrees. There are one or two Polytechnics for the lads; and, lastly, there are the “Settlements,” college settlements and others. Let me briefly describe the work and aims of one of these Settlements. I have before me the last report of the Browning Settlement in Walworth. It is called the Browning Settlement because its headquarters is the chapel in York Street in which Robert Browning was christened.

As for their plan of work, perhaps the aims and methods of a “Settlement” are not too well known for repetition. They are not all the same, but the differences are slight. The directors of this Settlement, for instance, desire to plant a Settlement House in every poor street: a house which shall be inhabited by the workers, men or women, and shall serve as a model for the other people in the street—example, in fact, is relied upon as a potent influence. There is, or will be, a large club house and coffee tavern for men and women, boys and girls. Once a week there is a concert in the Hall; the members of the Settlement take as large a part as possible in the local government; they have laid out a burial ground at the back of their hall as a garden; they have a medical mission which gives consultations free; some of them are poor men’s lawyers; they have introduced the University Extension Lectures; they have founded thrift agencies; they hold Sunday afternoons for the men; they have a maternity society; they have a clothes store; they have an adult school. Classes are held in hygiene, mathematics and classics; there have been Shakespeare readings, music, singing, country holidays, summer camps, children’s holidays; there is a boys’ brigade; there is musical drill; there are May-day and harvest festivals; and there are, in addition, works of religion and temperance which I have not enumerated above.

The keynote of all such work as this is, for the workers, personal service—for the people, the influence of example: the attraction of things which they understand at once to be a great deal more pleasant than the bar and the tap-room: such a variety of work and recreation as may drag all into the net except the substratum, or all whom nothing can lift out of the mire.

One or two things have yet to be learned as regards these Settlements. First, how large an area in a densely populated part can be covered by a single Settlement; next, how many young men can be found to carry on the work. For instance, if the Browning Settlement can reach——of course it cannot—all the people of Walworth, which is in the parish of Newington, and includes one hundred and twenty thousand people, there ought to be nine other Settlements in South London from Battersea to Greenwich, both included. If we give twenty thousand people for each Settlement, then there ought to be at least fifty Settlements for the millions of the working class. The report does not state how many residents there are, but gives a list of the officers and managers of departments, from which it would seem that about thirty are actively engaged from day to day. So that fifteen hundred voluntary workers in all would be required in order to cover this land of slums with an effective string of Settlements.

There never was a time when more determined efforts have been made for the elevation of the submerged, and there never was a time when so many young men and young women have been found ready to give the whole of their time, or all their spare time, to the work. Whether they will succeed in effecting a permanent improvement remains to be seen; whether the attraction of personal devotion which is now passing over the minds of the young will continue and remain with us, has also to be proved. The directors of the Browning Settlement meantime declare—I have no intention of questioning the truth of their assertion—that they find already among the people “a quickening of spirit, shown in keener intellectual interest, intenser civic ardour, warmer friendship, and more avowed piety.” If such are the fruits of a Settlement, we cannot but desire for South London a chain of Settlements, reaching from Battersea to Greenwich, both inclusive.


WALTER BESANT
Pall Mall Magazine


Return to featured author Sir Walter Besant
I would like to read "Westminster" by Sir Walter Besant on another website
I would like to read a short story by Sir Walter Besant
HOME

1
Hosting by WebRing.