ROWTON HOUSES — FROM A RESIDENT
When you have been accustomed to go every year to one of the most beautiful salmon rivers in Scotland, that passes from under the shadow of Ben Klibrech through Strathnaver to the sea, it is curious to find yourself living in London in one of Lord Kowton's houses, on an expenditure that seldom exceeds ten shillings a week — and to have done this for a considerable period of time.
There is no silence like the silence of a Highland strath. I have passed many days by the river, when salmon fishing in Strathnaver, when we would see no one, and then one day there would come down the road which follows the course of the river a cart with a man and a dog, and we would cease fishing for a few minutes to watch them; and as we walked home in the evening my friend would break the silence by saying, 'I think it must have been the shepherd from old Syre.'
This is very different from the noise that never ceases in the King's Cross Eoad, where you have the head office of the Parcel Post on your right, and the termini of the three great northern railways on your left.
Rowton House, King's Cross, gives accommodation to six hundred and seventy-one people. They may be described in the words of a Highlander who, upon being asked as to the people in the glen among' whom he lived, said they consisted of 'good folk, bad folk, and the Patersons.' With the Patersons you are familiar. In this house we are never without them. They are perfectly dressed in frockcoat and silk hat. If you could remove the stains, and take away the faded and worn appearance of their dress, they might walk in 'the Park' on Sunday without fear of observation. You see them haunting Fleet Street and Piccadilly, listening to the bands. Whence they come or whither they go, no one seems to know; they toil not, neither do they spin. If you sent one of them into the City to change a ten-pound note, you might have to wait a long time before he returned with your change.
The sleeping accommodation at Rowton House consists of cubicles. Each cubicle contains a bed and a chair, and above each bed there is a window, which the occupant may keep open or shut, as he please. There is a small shelf, and three iron pegs upon which he may hang his clothes. The sheets and blankets of the bed are ample, and the bed as comfortable as you get in a first-class hotel. To the door in the cubicle there is no lock, but only an iron bolt. To these six hundred and seventy-one sleeping-rooms there are only two locks and keys — the locks and keys of two great iron gates on the landing of the first floor.
These gates are closed at nine-thirty in the morning, and kept locked all day until seven-fifteen, when one of them is opened to admit the first batch of sleepers, mostly men who have to rise at three, four, or five in the morning — workers in the Smithfield Meat Market, sellers of newspapers, and workers among the vegetables in Covent Garden.
This gate is opened again every quarter of an hour, when a fresh batch of sleepers will have gathered at the gateway, where they have to show their cubicle ticket, which is marked by the attendant, or stamped 'cancelled' if their time has expired.
There are no appliances for washing on the cubicle floors. Washing is done on the ground floor. There are eighty wash-hand basins, with hot and cold water, towels hung upon rollers, and you supply your own soap.
There is a long, narrow room containing twelve large foot-baths in which the men may wash their feet.
And last — if it ever should be that the people for whom Lord Rowton has built these homes should wish to raise a tribute to his memory, let them carve at' the base of its granite column that he gave them a bath, a clean towel, and soap for a penny.
And now we will pass to the breakfast and dining rooms.
There are two rooms. The larger room contains thirty-eight tables made of oak, the smaller room nine tables — forty-seven tables in all. Four people can dine with comfort at each table, giving accommodation for one hundred and eighty-eight people at a time.
In the larger room there is a bar for the sale of provisions. At this bar there are three things they sell for a farthing — milk, matches, and vinegar. I bought a farthing's-worth of milk to use at breakfast this morning. For a halfpenny you can get a cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa, bread, Watercress, onions in spring, marmalade, pickles, and butter, The articles to be purchased for a penny are too numerous to mention, but to-day you may get a small plate of cold meat, potatoes, either cucumber or lettuce with tomatoes, the cost of which will be threepence. The working man dearly loves a salad: The walls of this room are hung with familiar engravings — Landseer's 'Horse-Shoeing,' 'Elaine' ('the lily maid of Astolat').
In the smaller room the walls are brightened with chromolithographs — prominent among them Millais' 'Bubbles.'
There are two sitting-rooms, and in one of them a library, to which have recently been added two hundred and sixty new books, well printed and excellently selected. So far as my observation goes, Dumas seems to be most popular. I asked a workman the reason of this, and he answered: * Because there's plenty of "go" about him.' Captain Marryat comes next — Midshipman Easy and delightful Peter Simple. Who would not be a boy again to read Peter Simple?
But in this library there is one omission. Among these six hundred fellow-lodgers of mine, there are at times sorrowful people for whom there should have been provided a copy of Robinson Crusoe.
You may play at draughts or chess, but cards are not permitted. Here, again, you have many pictures — Rosa Bonheur's 'Horses coming from the Fair;' 'Prince Rupert: His Last Charge at Edge Hill:'
Ere this hath Lucas marched, with his gallant cavaliers, And the bray of Rupert's trumpets grows fainter in our ears.
In the course of a few months there will be opened at Hammersmith a new house built by the company which owes its origin to Lord Rowton, and containing eight hundred beds. When this house is completed, there will be four houses in London, affording accommodation for more than two thousand five hundred people.
It may be interesting for a moment to compare the cost of living in one of these houses with the cost of living in one of the hotels with which you are familiar.
If you have been away for a holiday you will not have far to seek to find a paper upon which is written: 'Bedroom and attendance, six shillings; bath, one shilling; breakfast, three shillings and sixpence; dinner, five shillings.' Fifteen shillings and sixpence in all. What a prescription it is! How soon it reduces the hard-worked-for five-pound note into a heap of insignificant shillings!
But we must live in hope. Some day there may be opened for you an hotel with charges somewhat similar to Lord Rowton's: 'Bedroom, sixpence; bath, one penny; breakfast, fourpence — bread, butter, bacon, and tea; dinner, eightpence' — amounting to one shilling and sevenpence per day. At these prices Lord Rowton's houses pay a dividend of 5 per cent.
Let us compare the table d'hôte at six shillings with the humbler meal at eightpence. You will Say the comparison is absurd. I am not sure. Carving at a table d'hôte has been reduced to a science — and a fine science, too. Is there not an art in serving you a slice of saddle of mutton not much thicker than an envelope? And it may be that on your first visit to Switzerland the carver at the 'Schweitzerhof' surprised you at the innumerable pieces into which he could divide a chicken!
After a long tour in the Bernese Oberland I remember dining one night at the old Hotel Metropole in Geneva. We had the usual ten courses, and came away under the impression we had had a great deal to eat; but it was only an impression. After an hour or two we were assailed by what we may call the table d'hôte hunger,' and were glad to go into a restaurant and regale ourselves with sardines and cold roast beef and pickles.
And now we will take the simple fare to be found in the 'restaurant' of Rowton House, King's Cross. We will sit down at one of the little oak tables. Above it there is a picture, in colours, of two monks eating macaroni.
Bread and a basin of soup will cost twopence (the soup is excellent, and you get enough bread to make a meal of itself); a plate of roast beef and potatoes, fivepence; 'roly-poly pudding' (like Sancho Panza, 'not to be greeted unbenignly'), one penny. And you may go and walk in 'Merry Islington' without fear of the table d'hôte hunger.
I have mentioned in the first sentence of this article that I have lived upon a sum of less than ten shillings a week. My actual expenditure for food and lodgings has, for months at a time, not exceeded eight shillings and twopence a week.
Upon this sum I can live well, and it may interest you to know how I do it.
There is no royal road. You must 'face the music' and cook for yourself.
My first venture in cooking was the purchase of half a pound of beef sausages, potatoes, and a few tomatoes; but when I contemplated the great blazing fires, I thought seriously of giving some one a small sum to cook them for me. However, with the aid of a gentleman who earned his living by translating articles for French newspapers, I succeeded. He gave me a lesson in mashing potatoes, and taught me how, when the sausages were nearly ready, to place the sliced tomatoes in the frying-pan, making a not unsavoury dish, which cost fourpence.
Here is my last night's dinner. I purchased in a shop beside the Meat Market in Smithfield half a pound of beef-cuttings (fresh, sound beef), which cost twopence; quarter of a peck of fresh green peas, a penny; and a pound of new potatoes, a halfpenny. I placed the meat in cold water at the side of the fire until it simmered; later I added the peas and potatoes. It made an excellent stew. A cup of black coffee, one halfpenny. The total cost was fourpence. Breakfast — tea, brown bread, butter, and bacon, fourpence. Eightpence for food, sixpence for lodging — one shilling and twopence per day; eight shillings and twopence per week.
I can cook fish with very little trouble. A large mackerel costs fourpence. I place it between two tin plates in the oven, and in fifteen minutes it will be cooked to perfection.
I remember talking to the manager of what at the time was, perhaps, the best restaurant in Paris, and be said to me that if be could place at the bead of his dinner-bill, 'A good appetite five francs,' it would be a source of profit to himself, and greatly lessen the difficulty be bad in pleasing his customers.
If you go without lunch, and live upon the simple fare I have described above, you will have an appetite that you could sell at Voisin's, in the Rue St. Honore, for a little pile of francs —sometimes, alas! for a heap of napoleons.
Every morning, when I come down to breakfast, there is waiting for me on a table by an open window a cup, saucer, and tea-pot — all carefully washed: an act of kindness that is done by one whom I may call the grey man.'
He goes to bed every night at seven-thirty and rises soon after four. He started in life as a clerk, and on account of his industry — unfortunately for himself — was made a partner. Eventually the firm failed. In appearance he might be a deacon in the great Congregational church to which he goes twice every Sunday. Reticent to a degree, he has made few friends in life. He goes into the City every day, and of his occupation I am uncertain; of the results I am certain. The little meals tell the tale — tea, brown bread and butter, and not much of that at times; and, if things are better, perhaps a chop.
When you have been accustomed to live among people in health, it is difficult when you first come into touch with those who are suffering from disease.
For many months there breakfasted with me at this table a bricklayer. He had been careful and saved money. In an article in this Review,1 published in December 1893, the writer speaks of London as the 'happy hunting-ground for the tubercle bacillus.' My friend the bricklayer was suffering from consumption. Day by day the sorrowful tale was told, until at last the meals were left unfinished*. One evening I saw him playing draughts. The next morning he told me that many had been asking him if he felt better, and he added, 'I don't know how to answer them!' Not many days afterwards, in a bed in the Royal Free Hospital at King's Cross, the question had for ever ceased to require an answer.
If you will go to an archway near St. Paul's Cathedral, any day about eleven, you may see pass into the office of a publishing firm a man of about sixty years of age. He belongs to a class becoming extinct; he is a colporteur, earns his bread by selling boots. He has an intelligent face — features like the portraits of Dante, He comes sometimes and takes his evening meal with me. He is a poor man. I fear the book trade is not what it once was, and, like Enoch Arden, he has to 'hoard all savings to the uttermost.' He finds he can live more cheaply in one of Lord Rowton's houses than anywhere else, and it is more cheerful than the solitude of a private room. His conversation is interesting, especially when he talks about old London. He never gives any heed* to what I say. But he is a kindly, well-meaning man; will give me a little of his fruit, or lend me his evening paper; says he enjoys my society very much. 'Speech is silvern, silence is golden.'
I was sitting one day in the library when a man of some twenty- seven years of age asked me to let him have the use of my pen and ink. When he had finished writing we fell into conversation, lie told me he had just come out of gaol. This was his story: One day, when he was out walking, a cart passed containing half-filled bags. He knew the men in the cart, and they offered him a lift. They had not proceeded far when the cart was stopped by detectives. The bags contained stolen goods, and he was locked up. He was remanded four times, and eventually sentenced to a year's imprisonment. He told me he had no part in the theft, and would not have shared in the money realised by the stolen goods. I believed him — a belief that unfortunately is of little value, as I have only heard one side of the case.
There was a man who lived here at one time whom the people called the 'Silver King' — tall, clean-shaved, with a fine head of grey hair. Almost the first night he was in the house a stranger offered to teach him a new game on the draught-board. They sat down together and played: the stranger was Lord Rowton. The 'Silver King's' tale was a sad one, poverty T having fallen upon him in his old age. One day he disappeared, going away into this great city of London as Rip Van Winkle went away into the Catskill Mountains.
In a house like this you meet with many strange people. We hear a great deal nowadays about literature as a profession. Walter Pater in his essay on Style says: 'Say what you have to say, what you have a will to say, in the simplest and most direct and exact manner possible.' We may add to this the importance of having something to say. How many novels we have read fail! The authors have nothing to say. Here is a school for the study of character at your door — Lord Rowton will charge no entrance-fee — the admission is sixpence. If you stay for a time at one of these 'wayside inns,' you may gather an array of character that would have delighted Dumas, Dickens, or Sir Walter Scott to portray. In your hands they may be only marionettes, or it may be that you will be able to make them speak. In any case, you will have the straw — and it is difficult to make bricks without straw.
The trouble of sleeping in. a wooden cubicle is that the wood easily conveys sound. There is the man with the cough, and the man who snores. I have observed that men who snore never suffer from insomnia, but they succeed in making you heartily wish that they did.
Dr. George E. Wilson, speaking in Edinburgh last autumn before the Medico-Psychological Association, said:2 'Inasmuch as many careless vicious drunkards cannot be made to smart in their conscience, I believe that the infliction of corporal punishment would be useful against repeated lapses from sobriety.' This statement has resulted in varied expressions of opinion, many differing. For those who differ, I would have them sleep for a few nights in a cubicle in this house — with one who has lapsed from sobriety in the next division. After a few nights without sleep he will have changed his opinion, perhaps a dozen working men being also prevented from sleeping — men who, even in June, have to be up at sunrise. These lapsers from sobriety belong to the class who come home at midnight to put terror into the hearts of helpless children who should know no terror. I am not sure but Victor Hugo's prescription might be best for them — to be called at dawn: five minutes afterwards a puff of smoke, and the business so far as they are concerned for ever finished. The manager here has a simple cure — he returns them their money, and they are not permitted to enter the building again.
I am sorry to say that my fellow-lodgers in Rowton House do not believe in fresh air. They have a prejudice against night air. They believe that the air which floods London on a summer morning, and the air that beats on St. Paul's on Christmas Eve, are poisons which they must avoid. If you will let them have their way — fortunately the officials do not — they will sit on a winter night, in their reading-rooms, with three great fires ablaze, and every circular window that admits fresh air closed. They have an altogether exaggerated idea of the effect of draughts.
One day I hope there may be erected in London a building into which people may go and be trained so that they will become accustomed to draughts. It will be divided into rooms, like a Turkish bath. In the first room there will be a gentle, zephyr-like breeze falling upon you; the breeze will increase in strength in each chamber* until you reach the last, when there will be a perfect storm, such as you would encounter on the North Foreland. After a 'course' of this the patient will have ceased to be Susceptible to cold from draughts. We have Hospital Sunday. There might be another Sunday, upon which every clergyman in London preached upon the importance of breathing pure air, and so do something towards lessening the numbers who have need to use the hospital.
Here is something that; Lord Rowton has done for young men. Mr. John Bright, in speaking in favour of the delivery of letters in London on Sunday mornings, mentioned as an argument in its favour the advantage to be gained by a young man receiving a letter of counsel from his father. Lord Row ton has done even better for him — has provided a home where he can pass his time in a rational manner, where he may read books, write letters, and above all mix with what he pathetically calls 'his mates;' provided for him, in a humble way, comforts that are enjoyed by those who frequent the great club houses in Piccadilly and Pall Mall.
To appreciate what this means, you must picture the shabby lodging-house bedroom, the long evenings with no one to speak to, the empty box at the window in which flowers never grow.
The building of these large houses for working men has proved a success, and introduced a new feature into the social life of London. As yet the scheme is only in its infancy. Houses of this class will be built in all the great industrial cities throughout the kingdom. They will not be limited to men only; they will be erected for unmarried women, and for married men with families.
I shall not have written this article in vain, if it could be the means of inducing Lord Rowton and Sir Richard Farrant to erect a house similar to this at Brighton, perhaps with a thousand beds, to give accommodation to the hard-worked City clerk, where he could go — let us hope, upon his bicycle — from Saturday to Monday, and breathe sea air, paying only sixpence a night for his bed, and purchase his food at the prices I have named. A charity, not founded upon the shifting sands of sentiment, but built upon the solid rock of a 5 per cent, dividend.
It may naturally be said to me, 'With so small an expenditure, what have you in London that will yield you relaxation — add brightness to your life? What is there left that is "worth your heed"?'
The answer may not be without interest. There is the pleasure I derive from writing; you may practise music, sculpture, painting, carve in wood, follow any art. Art is the poor man's inheritance.
Robert Louis Stevenson, writing from Hyères in the French Riviera3 in April 1883, says: 'An art is a fine fortune, a palace in a park, a band of music, health and physical beauty: all but love — to any worthy practises I sleep upon my art for a pillow, I waken in my art; I am unready for death because I hate to leave it.'
There is an interesting passage in one of Dr. Boyd of St. Andrews' ('A. K. H. B.') essays in which, speaking of his life in the Manse, he tells how, when there would be an article of his published in Fraser's Magazine, the magazine would rest in the cover unopened until the day's work was done.
When I shall have finished writing to-day I shall go to one of the great stations; on the bookstall there will be a pile of magazines, one of them containing an article written by myself. You need not imagine for a moment that I shall purchase a copy; I know a better use for a sixpence than that. But it may be I shall see some one else purchase a copy, and go into the great express that runs to the North, and I shall think how in the early morning this train will pass Melrose and Abbotsford, and sweep up the long and beautiful valley by Gala Water. I can take you to a seat in Regent's Park from which no house is visible, only the waving trees, and from which for nearly four months of the year you can see a panorama of flowers such as you see at Haarlem if you chance to be there in April, when the hyacinths are in bloom.
And then there are the concerts in the Queen's Hall on Sunday afternoons — one hundred and two performers (I often pass in first of the fifty admitted free); the familiar music of Wagner and Tschaikowsky; perhaps a symphony by Beethoven, or Schubert's unfinished symphony, saying things you can never put into words, any more than you can put into words the last sunset you saw from the Riffelberg.
I often walk to the Tait [sic] Gallery to look at one picture — 'The Girl at the Gate'4 ('doubt, hesitation and pain'5) — beautiful as the faces painted by Bastien Lepage that hang in the gallery of the Luxembourg. I may venture to the upper gallery, where there is a small picture called 'Solitude'6 — only sea-birds, shingle, and long waves rolling in to the shore as the 'waters welcome the land.' And it is delightful to go to the great cathedrals, and listen to the anthems; and perchance wait for the sermon, if it is to be preached by one who has earned the right to speak by years of labour among the poor of London. And then I go to hear other preachers, above whose doors I sometimes think might be written, 'Your prayers for the poor, your pence for me.'
Possessing a private library of your own, it is difficult for you to appreciate what the public libraries are to those of us who have none. There are two within ten minutes' walk of this house — the Holborn Public Library, and the Clerkenwell. John Ruskin7 calls them 'King's treasuries. . . .The treasures hidden in books. . . . The company of the noble who are praying us to listen to them. . . . This eternal court is open to you, with its society, wide as the world, multitudinous as its days, the chosen and the mighty of every place and time.'
I often find my way to the Guildhall Library, and taking one of the blue slips of paper I write upon it 'Horae Subsecivae, by Dr. John Brown;' and the author of 'Rab and his Friends' takes me away to the wild Minchmoor, and I see again Traquair House, 'a pallid forlorn mansion, stricken all o'er with eld,' standing like a grey ghost watching by the banks of the Tweed, and I read Professor Sharp's weird and delightful poem:
'And what saw ye there,
At the bush aboon Traquair,
Or what did you hear that was worth your he id?'
'I heard the cushies croon Thro' the gowden afternoon,
And the Quair burn singing down to the Vale o' Tweed.'
Such are a few of the pleasures open to a poor man in London — pleasures you cannot take away from him. After all, it is not our possessions that make life worth living; it is our inner selves.
W. A. SOMMERVILLE. (1899)
1. 'What London People die of,' by Hugh Percy Dunn.
2. The Mismanagement of Drunkards (Adlard & Son).
3. To Mr. Henley, 'Robert Louis Stevenson's Letters,' Scribner's Magazine, April 1899.
4. George Clausen, A.R.A. (Chantrey Bequest).
5. '. . . never glad, confident/ morning again.'
6. George Cockram (Chantrey Bequest).
7. Sesame and Lilies, pp. 2, 13.
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