The People of the Abyss

3D front cover of The People of the Abyss by Jack LondonThe writer Jack London (1876–1916) is probably best remembered for his stories of the northern Canadian wilderness, White Fang (1903) and The Call of the Wild (1906). I remember reading a short story, ‘To Build a Fire’, many years ago: it deals with the ignorance and heedlessness which brought settlers and gold-seekers in the Yukon to their deaths through underestimating the savagery of the territory. I’ve now discovered that London wrote the story twice: once in 1902, when the hapless traveller survives, though traumatized and severely frost-bitten. In the 1908 version, it all ends badly, except for the dog.

We have just reissued one of London’s non-fiction works, The People of the Abyss, which describes the existence of the poorest of the poor in the East End of London in 1902. London (the person) had been invited to visit London (the place) by the English publisher of his first short stories, who, according to the ‘Publisher’s Note’ in this book, had suggested that the ‘Old World’, and especially parts of the East End, would provide ‘endless material of the kind he would know how to use’.

When he called, unheralded, on his publisher some time later, he had already been in England for two months: having acquired a shabby set of second-hand clothes on arrival, he ‘promptly lost himself somewhere “down by the docks”’, observing and sharing the life of the dispossessed underclass whose existence was known to many (Friedrich EngelsAndrew Mearns, Octavia Hill, Thomas Mackay …) but ignored by most. As London’s English friends told him: ‘”But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere.” And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise.’

Somewhat surreally, he tried Thomas Cook, travel agent to the burgeoning middle classes, ‘”You can’t do it, you know,” said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook’s Cheapside branch. “It is so – ahem – so unusual.”’ Everyone agreed that he should ask the police for advice, but he realised that this was the last thing he should do if he wanted to move around the East End unnoticed, so in the end he ordered a hansom cab driver to take him to there. He got as far as Stepney Station before the cab driver grew mutinous at the lack of specific destination in this obviously dicey neighbourhood, so he instructed him stop the cab round the corner after the next old-clothes shop he saw. Some hard bargaining for an appropriate outfit then took place, before the nervous cabman returned him to respectable London.

I know (superficially) certain bits of the East End of London, because various of my Loved Ones have lived or do live there: Bermondsey, Shadwell, the Isle of Dogs and Whitechapel. But this is the gentrified, trendy East End, with a Costa Coffee on almost every corner. Such historic buildings – like the houses-cum-workshops of the Huguenot silk-weavers in Spitalfields – as were spared the bombing of the Second World War and survived the multiple occupancy and squatting of the 1970s and 80s are now transformed into desirable town houses or urban cottages – and so are some of the jerry-built Victorian houses which London deplored in 1903. Some areas, obviously, are still inhabited by the very poor, but the level of deprivation of a century ago is difficult to imagine. Luckily, London’s writing and photographs leave very little to the imagination.

Dante is clearly at the back of his mind: his first chapter is called ‘The descent’, and there are frequent references to the Inferno – though there is no hope of Paradise. Even relatively well-off inhabitants of the odd, out-of-the-way quiet terraces with small gardens are described as ‘torpid’: they are on the margins of prosperity and health, and it will take very little to tip them over into the Abyss.

London uses facts to bolster his impressions: the Cambridge economist A.C. Pigou had recently calculated that 7.5 per cent of the population of London – 450,000 people – were completely destitute, or as London says, ‘dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called “London”’.  He quotes William Thiselton-Dyer (son-in-law and successor of J.D. Hooker as Director at Kew Gardens), who calculated that ‘no less than six tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are deposited every week on every quarter of a square mile in and about London’. Sulphuric acid was part of the mix, and was ‘constantly being breathed by the London workmen through all the days of their lives’.

That this affected the health of the London poor from earliest infancy is attested by the startling fact that those who require physical stamina for their work are largely drawn from the country, ‘while in the Metropolitan police there are, roughly, 12,000 country-born as against 3000 London-born’. But this great influx of workers from the country to the city was one of the reasons for the poverty and overcrowding of the East End, the others being immigration from abroad and the loss of accommodation in central London as the owners of the land developed offices, hotels and banks where there had previously been houses.

One of the first men London encounters is an exemplar: a well-built and apparently fit 22-year-old who gets work when he can as a ship’s stoker, spends the money on drink, and gets another job when he runs out of money. He is illiterate, comes from a violent home, has no aspirations beyond money for beer, and, London predicts, will have ruined his health in the next few years, after which he will join the ranks of the destitute at the bottom of the pit, for however long his life then lasts.

Whole streets in the East End where a house had previously contained one family were now crowded with a family to each room – with no wash-house and no space for a tin bath (which at least saved on the cost of soap). The ‘respectable’ families were moving further out, to the salubrious suburbs of Essex and Hertfordshire from which they could commute by rail into London to work. (Ebenezer Howard’s Letchworth Garden Village was beginning to take shape at about this time: here the utopian ideal was to combine the practical advantages of town life with access to nature – work would be near at hand, but it too would be enjoyable and be part of a healthy work–life balance.)

But for the people of the Abyss, there is no escape into green fields – except during the traditional exodus to the hop-fields of Kent, which is vividly portrayed, though far being from the jolly, festive event traditionally described. Death is a common occurrence, and if a child dies and there is no money for its burial, the body is kept in the communal bed during the day, and laid on the table or the food shelf at night – until when?

The last few pages of the book are devoted to an examination of what might be done. Almost all the well-meaning attempts of the prosperous to assist the destitute are useless – ‘Their college settlements, missions, charities, and what not, are failures. … They do not understand the simple sociology of Christ … As someone has said, they do everything for the poor except get off their backs.’ In his impassioned argument as to the futility of all these ventures (and he is especially critical of the Salvation Army’s concern with the souls rather than with the bodies of the starving), London makes one exception, for the work of Thomas Barnado. ‘He does not play with palliatives. He traces social viciousness and misery to their sources. He removes the progeny of the gutter-folk from their pestilential environment, and gives them a healthy, wholesome environment in which to be pressed and prodded and moulded into men.’

But individuals can only do so much. As London sees it, it is the ‘management’ (that is, the capitalist model that underpins the government) that is wrong. Comparing the lives of the Inuit of the Yukon and the people of the East End, he deduces (and calls on T.H. Huxley in support) that the ‘primitive’ Inuit fare much better. ‘There are 40,000,000 of the English folk, and 939 out of every 1,000 of them die in poverty… Every worn-out, pasty-faced pauper, every blind man, every prison babe, every man, woman, and child whose belly is gnawing with hunger pangs, is hungry because the funds have been misappropriated by the management.’

London and his publisher both assume that many Englishmen will not like what he has written. In fact, the book was published in Britain in October 1903, and our reissue is of the second printing, a month later – so this stirring cry for reform did not, apparently, fall on completely deaf ears.


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2 Responses to The People of the Abyss

  1. Pingback: The Geffrye Museum | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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