Out of House and Home
THE Borough of Stepney lies just beyond the boundaries of the old City of London. It is one of the largest boroughs, one of the poorest, and certainly one of the worst-bombed. To the north lies Shoreditch, where Shakespeare first appeared on any stage; on the south is the River Thames, with two miles of river frontage and four of the largest docks in the world. In Stepney is the Tower of London, the Mint where all the money comes from, and the London Hospital — perhaps the most important of London’s hospitals. Stepney embraces many districts familiar to Americans — Limehouse, Bow, Wapping, where the great warehouses front the river, Whitechapel and Spitalfields.
The population of Stepney in many ways reminds one of the population of the East Side of New York. There are, in peacetime, about a quarter of a million people. One half or more are Jewish. There are also a very great number of cockney English, a group of Irish, and many Scandinavians. Down near the docks there are a number of Negroes and lascars and Indians. In Limehouse there are still about a hundred Chinese.
Since the war, Stepney has the distinction of having the largest and most famous of all East End shelters. Its landmarks have taken on new importance. The People’s Palace, once the finest recreational centre in the East End, is now used for a very different purpose. In the theatre, rows of homeless people sit waiting to be given new places in which to live. The Stepney Public Library has been turned into a Food Control Office, and the Art Gallery is now a Rates Office. The swimming baths are a de-contamination centre and the schools are Rest Centres for bombedout people, posts for A. R. P. wardens, and depots for the Fire Service and Rescue Squads.
Not everything has been changed, however. At Toynbee Hall, the settlement in the East End of London founded by Oxford and Cambridge, classes are still held (after work) in singing, ballet, elocution, art, psychology, and mathematics. A great deal of serious reading is going on, to judge from the books taken out of the public libraries. During the worst days of the blitz last autumn there always seemed to be music floating out of the windows of Toynbee Hall. Sometimes it would be a violin solo, sometimes the voices of children singing.
At Toynbee Hall, too, half the building is taken over for wartime purposes. Downstairs is the Assistance Board, the government office that pays out small sums to people who have been bombed. After a bad night in Stepney there will be two or three thousand people to deal with, people whose curtains have been torn to ribbons as their windows were blown in or whose crockery has been shaken off the shelves and smashed to bits by a particularly vibrant thud. When a laundry has been destroyed, or a big pawnbroker’s burnt out, there will be queues of patient people waiting with pawnbrokers’ tickets or letters from the laundry to say that their goods are gone. Here too come the people who have been injured in air raids to present their doctors’ certificates and collect their weekly allowances. A married man is allowed nine dollars a week, a working woman five and a half. These seem very small sums, but they are more than the ordinary sickness-insurance money of peacetime.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the sums given out by the Assistance Board. Annoyance is sometimes felt when people living in the same street or even the same house are given different sums for the same calamity. But on the whole the elasticity of the system diminishes rather than increases hardship. The usual sum given to people who have lost all their clothes in Stepney is twenty-five dollars.
Twenty-five dollars does not go far, even in the East End, to buy a new outfit. The people are satisfied with it because it is more than a week’s wages, but when they come to spend it they find that it will only buy a suit and a pair of shoes and they are left without an overcoat or all the other things they need. This is where the Clothing Stores come in. The chief Clothing Store is at the People’s Palace and is presided over by a parson who has lost his church through enemy action. His new congregation consists of rows of waiting women sitting on chairs. They have usually been bombed out the night before, and after visiting the Assistance Board they come to the Clothing Store to be given a set of clothes. They are very tired by the time they get there, and if they have a long wait it is not unusual for them to faint on their chairs. Revived by cups of tea, they pass on into the room where the clothes are laid out, and every man, woman, and child is given one complete set of clothes if needed.
The bulk of the underclothes, boots and shoes, and men’s clothes are bought wholesale. They are often army misfits, and the khaki has been dyed dark blue. Some of the clothes are cast-off articles that individuals have sent privately. By now, nearly all the women’s and children’s clothes come either from the United States or from Australia. There are bales of beautiful knitted pullovers and stockings, gayly colored plaid and check frocks from Cleveland and Westfield, utility bags with everything that a bombed-out person could need, from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And sometimes the difference between American and English clothes and customs leads to curious mistakes. Folding paper cups in the utility bags cause surprise and speculation. At first some union suits of underwear were refused in the belief that they were sleeping suits — for no one in Stepney who goes to shelters at night ever undresses.
After a bad raid those who find their homes a heap of rubble either are taken in by a friend or go to the nearest Rest Centre, where they are given a welcome and a meal and where they stay for a week or two until the Billeting Officer finds them a new place to live.
Most of the people in Stepney have no money in the bank. Their homes represent their savings. But they rarely show signs of discouragement when they find them in ruins. After a very noisy night, people’s spirits rise. They feel they have been through an ordeal and emerged successfully. ‘We are lucky to be alive’ is the almost universal remark; and unless they have lost friends or relations they usually add, ‘There are thousands worse off than we are.'
The new homes that the Billeting Officer finds them are not usually as nice as the old ones. A family who have been used to five or six rooms may have to crowd into two or three. Many of the windows in Stepney have been broken by blasts from bombs and are boarded up in a makeshift way so that the rooms are cold and dark. If the rooms are unfurnished the Assistance Board will supply money for a minimum of new furniture.
The damaged houses fall into different categories. If the roof is off and the sky can be seen through the ceiling, a certificate is given to say the house is uninhabitable. The occupier can be rebilleted and have his furniture stored free of charge by the Borough Officials. But if the roof still holds, there is no relief. Doors may be blown in, windows and window frames gone, rain may be driving in at the openings and dripping from the ceiling, but there is little to be done and nothing that can be done quickly. It may be weeks or it may be months before the house is made weatherproof. Meanwhile people hang on in one or two rooms, sleeping mostly at the shelters, the women coming home to spend the day in one little scullery or kitchen.
The extraordinary thing is that more people have not left Stepney for the country. The government has a scheme which takes anyone of over sixty-five away to the country if he wishes to go. Most of the old people prefer to stay, and of those that left in the autumn of 1940, nine out of ten have returned. All their lives they have lived in the East End of London, and they do not want to leave it now.
I suggested to an old man of seventyeight, Isaac Jacobs, that he would be more comfortable in the country and that his pension would go further, as his rent would be paid by the government. ‘What? Me leave London?’ he said indignantly. ‘Why, my mother was born in the City of London in 1831 and we have lived here ever since.’ One old lady, Mrs. Sarah Joseph, deaf, blind, and eighty-two, groped her way to the office one day early in January to ask for evacuation. She had been frightened on the night of December 29 by the fires and by her difficulty in making her way to the shelter. She lived all alone in two small rooms. ‘Why didn’t you come before?’ we asked. ‘I suppose it was silly of me,’ she said, ‘but you see I like to be queen of my own castle.’
All sorts of other reasons tie them to their homes. Women want to cook for their husbands; they want to look after children of over fourteen who are working in London factories. Sometimes they don’t like to leave the furniture; sometimes they are afraid that their husbands will not send them money regularly if they are living away from home. The reason which seems to figure largest of all is that they wish to work.
If a woman’s husband is in the army and they have one child the wife receives eight dollars a week from the government. If she sends her child to the country and stays in London and works she can earn double that, amount. The only difficulty here is that the government will not evacuate small children by 1 hemselves. Children five to fourteen are sent away to foster mothers in the country, but the government will not allow a child under five to go to the country except with its mother. It is felt, that a busy woman in the country cannot properly look after someone else’s child too young to go to school.
The other day a woman brought a small girl into the office. The child’s hands strayed towards the inkpot while the mother was talking to me. ‘If you’re not good,’ said the mother, pulling her back, ‘I’ll ‘ave you evacuated.’ The threat was more effective than any slap.
After the heavy raid of April 16 a mother came into the office to discuss her rent problem. With her was Harold, her boy of thirteen.
‘Why don’t you and Harold go to the country?’ I asked her.
Harold’s face darkened; he twitched at his mother’s sleeve. ‘Let’s be off, Mum,’ he muttered.
‘I can’t go to the country,’ she said firmly. ‘My nerves won’t stand the quiet. I suffer from neurasthenia.’
The great pride of Stepney before the war was Whitechapel High Street, the mecca of all seamen who sailed to London Docks. Now most of the cinemas have been bombed, and many of the shops too. Woolworth’s at the corner has had four direct hits, but has opened again and is doing a brisk business. Almost every church and synagogue has been destroyed, but services are carried on in private houses or in warehouses. ’Hitler doesn’t care for religion,’ said a Stepney man, looking at the ruins of his church, ‘but if he reckons without God he will have to reckon with man before we are through with him.’
Some of the public houses still function, although they have to close at ten o’clock. On the fiercest nights of a blitz little singsong parties can be heard up and down the streets in the bar parlors. No drinking is allowed in the shelters, although a sensible Shelter Marshal usually turns a blind eve on a single bottle of beer. In the same way, although gambling is forbidden, the people settle down night after night to endless games of Keeno. In Stepney it is known as Housy-Housy, and the price of a card is two cents.
The Shelter Marshals are elected either by the people in the shelter themselves or by the A.R.P. wardens. Again there are no hard and fast rules. The system is adopted that seems to suit each shelter best. The Friends’ Ambulance Unit has provided large numbers of Shelter Marshals who have been extremely successful and are very popular. These young men are mostly Quakers. They have two months’ training before they come to the East End, and one hundred and eighty of them live in the medical students’ home behind the London Hospital. Although Stepney is their headquarters, they go round to all the East End boroughs - Bethnal Green, Poplar. Islington, East and West Ham, Bermondsey. They do anything and everything. Perhaps their most appreciated service is in tidying up the homes of busy workers whose houses have been covered with dust and broken glass from falling bombs.
One man, whose wife was in the country, came home late from working overtime to find his house swept and cleaned, his furniture moved from upstairs where it was being ruined by the rain, and boards nailed across his window in place of shattered glass. ‘ It’s given me new heart,’ he said; ‘I feel I can start again.’
Over a hundred voluntary Red Cross workers take turns at sitting up all night in the different shelters of Stepney, braving the foul air and dealing with anything from a cut finger to a confinement. Doctors from the West End of London do nightly rounds, and mobile canteens tour the streets to feed the firemen and rescue workers.
Many people who before the war had never been east of St. Paul’s now work all day, unpaid, in Rest Centres. Six Citizens’ Advice Bureaus have been opened. The Poor Man’s Lawyer, busy in peacetime, has had his numbers trebled since the war began. Every social worker and charitable organization is working overtime. And the vast network of welfare workers organized by the London County Council in the days of peace has perhaps done more than anything else to keep the borough going under wartime conditions.
But the help and encouragement do not all come from outside. The inhabitants of Stepney are kind to each other as only people who are poor know how to be kind. The other day, in a butcher’s shop, several women had been waiting for their meat ration. The meat gave out, and the last woman was left without any. Immediately the woman just in front of her took her own piece of meat out of her bag, divided it in two, and gave the other woman half of it. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is the stoicism of the old people. One old man of seventy-three, William Burns, used regularly to visit the office about his old-age pension, over which there was some difficulty. He did not come in the winter for two months, and when he appeared again in March we asked him where he had been. ‘I’ve been bombed a bit,’ he replied. ‘I was lying in bed and the ceiling came down on my chest.’
We expressed concern.
‘It was nothing,’ he said. ‘Just a lot of mess and debris on my chest, that’s all.’
However, his hospital card showed he had been in hospital for six weeks with a broken rib and bruises and cuts all over him. Self-concern is rare.
And now Stepney, a busy port in Tudor times and until the war the centre of the world’s maritime trade, is going through the most stirring period of its history. Its inhabitants all their lives have been fighting poverty, dirt, disease, and physical exhaustion, and now to their burden is added the terror of nightly visits from enemy bombers. From Whitechapel to Bow and from Limchouse to Shoreditch there is not a family that has not suffered in some way from the war.
In this part of London one is continually reminded of the old nursery rhyme: —
Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s,
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s,
When will you pay me, say the bells of Old Bailey,
When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,
Pray, when will that be, say the bells of Stepney,
I’m sure I don’t know, says the great bell of Bow.
Today the bells of St. Clement’s are buried thirty feet underground to save them from German bombs, and the bells of Shoreditch are almost all destroyed. Oranges and lemons no longer come up the Thames in boats, and the big bell of Bow will only ring out if an invader sets foot on London soil. But a town is not made up of buildings alone, but of the people who live in the buildings. Far from becoming a derelict district, Stepney is a community of increasing social experiment and social contact. The vitality of the organism is shown by the activity, cheerfulness, and adaptability of the population. The little tailor whose business is bombed finds a new room and starts again with one machine. Bombs fall, but the people who have lost their homes decorate the heaps of rubble next day with Union Jacks. Perhaps the situation was summed up best by a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who had a corner of his house removed by enemy action while he was sleeping in it. ‘It was the bomb that was finished,’ he said, ‘and not me.’