Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting their teeth into clearing slums

Grandpa lost his tooth because he did not wash his teeth when he was young. My four-year-old grand-daughter’s pronouncement over the Christmas period, made unexpectedly and without obvious connection to what went before, prompted laughter. Later that day as I was reading Jack London’s The People of the Abyss my thoughts went back to that day just before Christmas 1960 when Athy’s only dentist, who came to the town one or perhaps two afternoons a week from neighbouring Naas, thought it necessary to remove the now missing tooth. It was my first visit to a dentist and one prompted by the medical requirements of Kildare County Council before I took up appointment as a clerical officer in the council offices at St. Marys, Naas. Dental procedures in those days apparently did not include tooth fillings and so a spot indicating decay, no matter how insignificant, resulted in an extraction.

Looking back at the dental procedures and indeed what I can recall of the dental equipment of almost 50 years ago I marvel at what improvements have been made in the meantime. Glancing back even further still to the time when Jack London spent some time in the East End of London before writing of the conditions in which the Londoners, the emigrant Irish and the Jewish families lived, I am frankly astonished at the improvements in living conditions over the last 100 years or so.

Jack London, the illegitimate son of an Irish father and an American by birth was just 25-years old when in 1902 he went to live for seven weeks in the East End of London. What he found were appalling conditions and it prompted me to question whether those conditions in any way mirrored what was to be found on this side of the Irish Sea. Remember his East End sojourn was five years before the Old Age Pension of 5 shillings per week for those over 70 years old was first brought in. Up to then the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled had to rely on charity and indeed ultimately the Workhouse. This is how Jack London described what he found.

There are 300,000 people in London divided into families that live in one room tenements ..... another 600,000 live in over-crowded conditions which are deemed unhealthy ..... not only are houses let, they are sub-let and sub-let down to the very last room ..... beds are let on the 3 relay system - that is 3 tenants to a bed, each occupying it 8 hours ..... while the floor space beneath the bed is likewise let on the 3 relay system.

One in every 4 in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1,000 die in poverty. There are streets in London where out of every 100 children born in a year 50 die the following year and of the 50 that remain 25 die before they are 5 years old.’

Friedrick Engels 58 years earlier when he was just 25-years of age wrote of the conditions of the working class in England and of the London area which was the subject of Jack London’s social enquiry.

The houses are occupied from cellar to garret, filthy within and without, and their appearance is such that no human being could possibly wish to live in them. But all this is nothing in comparison with the dwellings in the narrow courts and alleys between the streets ..... in which the filth and tottering ruins surpass all description. Scarcely a window pane can be found, the walls are crumbling, door posts and window frames loose and broken, doors of old boards nailed together or altogether wanting where no doors are needed, there being nothing to steal. Here live the poorest of the poor, the worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution indiscriminately huddled together, the majority Irish or of Irish extraction ..... it often happens that an Irish family is crowed into one bed, often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in indiscriminate heap where all alike are degraded by want and wretchedness.

Six years after Engels published in Germany his findings, Henry Mayhew, an English born journalist, published in serial form his research into London Labour and the London Poor. Re-issued many times since, Mayhew’s sociological record is an interesting and graphic account of how the poor lived and the various means, legal and otherwise, adopted by them to survive. Subsequent issues of his work were published as separate volumes with titles such as Mayhew’s Underworld, Mayhew’s Characters and Mayhew’s London. Mayhew, in describing the Low Lodging Houses in London where beds were let out nightly with 2 or 3 persons to a bed and numbers sleeping on the kitchen floor during busy periods wrote approvingly of the behaviour of Irish women living in London.

The extent of the poverty highlighted by Engels, Mayhew and Jack London was eventually acknowledged when the British government of 1904 established a Royal Commission to enquire into the working of the Poor Laws which had been operated for the previous 70 years. Included amongst the Commis-sioners appointed was Beatrice Webb who with her husband Sydney and George Bernard Shaw was a leading member of the Fabian Society which was to be one of the founding organisations of the English Labour Party. Subsequently, school meals came to be provided by the State for children in need following the passing of the Schools Meals Act. Old Age Pensions followed in 1908, together with a raft of legislation aimed at child protection out of which emerged the origins of the welfare State we now enjoy today.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss which I read over Christmas coupled with my grand-daughter’s comment of a missing tooth set me on a train of thought which prompted this week’s article. However, I failed to address the question I had posed earlier on which was did the conditions found by Jack London in the East End of Britain’s capital city in any way mirror the conditions to be found in Athy at that time? I have before me an extract from a report prepared by Dr. James Kilbride, the local medical officer of health, following on his inspection of the living conditions of what he described as the working classes in Athy just 3 years after Jack London’s book was first published.

The floors in many houses are lower than the laneway in front and the fall of the yard is to the back door, consequently the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded. In less than a dozen cases was there found any sanitary accommodation ..... in some rooms the only light admitted is through a few (sometimes only one) small panes of glass found in the wall, sufficient light or air cannot find entrance to these rooms ..... there are many houses which should be closed as unfit for human habitation.

Whatever the answer to my question it is clear that the Irish government of 1932 acted decisively in adopting a National Slum Clearance Programme and so helped to eradicate a social evil which condemned many families to live in substandard and unhealthy accommodation. That programme was put into effect at the start of the Economic war when Irish workers and farmers were experiencing the most oppressed conditions ever experienced by the fledging Irish State.

Happy New Year to the Eye on the Pastreaders.

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