A Tale of Two Families
J. T. Stirrett
THE reason the place was called “Sunbeam Court” was that no ray of the sun ever by any chance ventured there. If it had, the murk of the night or the fog of the day would have recoiled in terror, as though discovered by an apparition. Casual visitors inquired where the sunbeams were with surprise and amusement—unfamiliar emotions in that place, where the inhabitants were neither surprised nor amused at anything. One suggested that perhaps the residents were sunbeams, and absurd surmise so far as the morose adult population were concerned, and pitifully untrue regarding the strange, sad children. In brief, Sunbeam Court was a slum district in the east end of London. Those who have been there know the conditions; those who have not
can gain no adequate conception of them through mere description.
Two of the oldest families of Sunbeam Court were the Criglets and the Blogetts, who were only remarkable by being related to every pauper in the place. Yet they were of the middle class where those who had provision for more than the day formed a scattered aristocracy. None of the immediate relatives of either family were in jail, but a discreet silence was maintained in regard to certain cousins of the third degree. No members of either household could recollect ever having ha:l quite enough to eat, or of wearing a whole, undamaged outfit of clothing. They were indifferent to dirt, disease, crime and death; for these things were permanent factors in the elusive equations of their lives.
Mr. Blogett and Mr. Criglet worked on the docks and 1 »(‘longed to the class known to the shipping industry as “wharf rats. They were employed during the intervals between the strikes called by their unions; when olí duty, they made plans to re-organize tin* mercantile marine. Thus, they often heard about the far away countries.
One day they were watching a great ship swing into her moorings.
“She’s from Canada,” remarked some one.
“ ’Ow is she? asked Mr. Criglet.
Mr. Blogett was glowering into vacancy and refused to be disturbed. The question was repeated.
“’Ow’s ’o? asked Mr. Blogett irritably.
“Canada,” replied Mr. Criglet. “This ’ere colony wot we owns.”
“Ow should I know? inquired the other.
“Strvnge,” muttered Mr. Criglet, viewing the Canadian liner with distrust and disappointment. “I don’t see no hice about them Canadian ships. I’ve ’eard as it is a worry cold plice. A cousin o’ the missus was nearly ’anged there over throwing a bucket o’ water from a second storey window. The water froze ’alf way down and knocked a cove’s ’ead off.”
Mr. Blogett gave no sign of intelligence.
“For two bits,” continued Mr. Criglet, “I’d go to Canada.”
No passing philanthropist volunteered the necessary amount and Mr. Blogett remained inert.
“It couldn’t be worse nor ’ere,” soliloquized Mr. Criglet.
“ ’Ell couldn’t.” retorted Mr. Blogett.
There was a long silence pregnant with new possibilities for at least two families. Then Mr. Criglet said in a whisper, “Is
Mr. Blogett rose stiffly, took of his hat, surveyed its crown, brushed his sleeve carefully with it, and then replaced it on his head.
“It is,” he said.
In Toronto the Blogetts and the Criglets became first acquainted with “rears.” “Rear” is a technical term for a certain dwelling. It derives its title, not from any peculiarity of structure, but from its location—the back of a lot on which a more pretentious house is built, fronting the street. Consequently, the “rear” modestly hides behind its big brother, and can only be reached circuitously by delving into a lane and stumbling over scatterred boards which once presented the serried surface of a picket side-walk. This arrangement allows landlords to collect almost double rent on one lot. The Criglets and Blogetts had “rears” on adjoining lots, paying for the same a rent of twelve dollars per month each. These buildings involved strange economic problems. They had utility, because they housed people— as a hole shelters rats; they had value, because they delivered to their owners exorbitant rentals ; but they had no merit, because they were abominable and unfit for human habitation. As shrewd men of business, the owners prided themselves on the evolving of a certain social for-.
mula, which was crude to the point of brutality, but in the majority of cases pitifully true.
“These green English from the east end of London like to herd together,” ran the formula. “The men will get work in the factories and they will live in our ‘rears/ which are convenient. They will endure squeezing for rent rather than move to the outskirts and pay car-fare. Therefore, let them be squeezed!”
Incited by some disinterested person, who, in the opinion of the landlords, had a vicious habit of meddling in other people’s affairs, the medical health officer’s inspectors visited these particular “rears” and laid complaints in regard to their
unsanitary condition, before a police magistrate.
“But, your Worship,” protested the brazen-tongued sophist who acted as counsel for the landlords, “let us suppose that these buildings are demolished. Two families will be turned out in the snow and will have to find quarters far removed from where they are employed.”
The result was that the “rears” remained intact, and continued to devote themselves to the <usk of freezing their occupants.
Such was the situation one March evening when Mr. Blogett sat glowering at three flickering embers in his sheet iron stove. He was not a pre-possessing person
at anv time, but in the semi-darkness his shock-head, factory-blackened face, and scowling features gave him the appearance of an Australian bushman. Suddenly he brought down his fist on the table with a bang which made the solitary family tumbler leap with fear. ?
“Missus,” he roared, T am t no orse.
Mrs. Blogett, startled into speech, remarked tartly that she had never accused
him of it.
“Nor,” continued great emphasis, “am ass.”
Mr. Blogett, I a bloomin’
“I’m sick pyin’ rent!” said the head of
the house. , , . . .
“’Oo isn’t?” inquired his long-suffering
wife. , ,
“I’m going to ’ave a ome 0 mv own!
thundered Mr. Blogett.
A conversation with a fellow countryman had blown part of the London fog out of his brain. This man had heen for two years a resident of Donscourt, as the tattered fringe of dwellings which straggled over the northwest boundary ot Toronto was called. Prior to that he had lived near the Bay and had paid a rental of four dollars a week for a house. When he went to Donscourt he paid ten dollars down on a piece of land and four dollars a week (his old rental), towards the reduction of the mortgage on the land and the erection of a house. The struggle was hard, but he was getting something of his own. Under the spell of this narrative the sluggish imagination of Mr. Blogett was kindled. Inside of a week he had left the “rear” and had moved to Donscourt, where he secured a thirty-six foot lot by a first payment of ten dollars.
lived in a tent on their land. The tent cost a dollar and a half a week. Mr. Blogett got work as a builder’s laborer and his wife washed, scrubbed and ironed in houses a mile or more from the tent. Before and after hours the man labored with borrowed tools building a house. It was a flimsy affair, constructed out of rough lumber and tar paper, but it was considered a wonderful structure by the young Blogetts, who held the boards while their parent bruised his finger nails with the hammer. On the first of November the family abandoned the tent and moved in-
to the new house. For the next six weeks Mr. Blogett spent all his spare time finishing the interior. He was so busy that he had little time to drink, although his thirst at times was intense. Early in December, a terrific snowstorm swept down upon the city and raged for three days. When it abated the Blogett family stood at their front door and contemplated with awe the tangible evidence of a Canadian winter. Building operations ceased entirely, so Mr. Blogett was out of work. He sought other employment, but theré was none to be had. The family exche-
money had gone to purchase building material. Mrs. Blogett began to conserve the coal and to dole out the supply öf food. She went down to the city when she could, and her husband got occasional etífployment shovelling snow. Until the middle of January they maintained the grim battle against cold and hunger. Finally the supply of fuel and food ran out, and' Mr. Blogett could get no more credit, at the stores. When they had been a day . and a night without food or fire, they were discovered by a minister. They were by no means the only destitute family in Donscourt; sickness spread over the settlement and Death gathered inmany victims, among them being the Blogett baby.
Things were at their worst when relief arrived. The big city below was at last roused to action by its newspapers and pulpits. Loads of provisions, fuel and clothing were rushed to the scene and a crisis was averted.
Although the suffering of those terrible months' scarred the hearts of the Donscourt settlers, their dogged English spirits
meii ampwomen took up the struggle, as hope onS| more burned strong within them. The next winter was not half so terrible ,ànd the second was faced with confidence.
Let. us lift up the blind of the Blogett’s window one cold March evening of this year and survey the interior of the living room, where the family sit at dinner. It is the birthday of Mrs. Blogett, and a most auspicious occasion. She is seated at the head of_ the table trying to appear unconscious of her importance, and succeeding very poorly. Opposite, is Mr. Blog-
ett, extremely red in the face, and apparently laboring under strong excitement. On each side, are ranged three young Blogetts, casting merciless glances at the roast chicken, reclining in the dish on the embroidered centerpiece, which is the especial product of Miss Molly Blogett’s genius. The head of the family sharpens the carving knife and poises it, but it falls with a clatter and Mr. Blogett clutches convulsively at his breast, as though a secret lay there which must be torn out. Before his wife can voice the alarm, which his strange action creates, Mr. Blogett’s hand reappears, grasping a formidable document. Amid a dead silence he opens it and displays a red seal, before passing it over to Master Herbert Blogett who prepares to read without winking an eye. The first word, embossed at the top of the sheet, is “Deed.”
In the meantime, the Criglets lived in the slums, paying rent when they were able, and moving when they were not. During the three years two more young Criglets had arrived, bringing the total up to seven. At each addition to his worldly cares, Mr. Criglet’s spirits oozed
away, keeping pace with his finances. As nature had not implanted in his brain sufficient craft to become skilled with his hands, his contribution to the world’s work was paid in labor of the roughest character. In Toronto, as in London, he was an “odd-jobber,” and had neither the ambition nor the opportunity to increase his earning power by developing his scanty mental and physical capacities. He was the buffer in every crash of rival economics forces ; at the slightest commercial depression he joined the ranks of the unemployed, where his sympathies lay and his inclination directed him. It is a problem whether there was inflammable material in his soul, but it is certain that no spark of ambition ever kindled there, because it was smothered by the wet blanket of domestic trials, before it had time to ignite. His one solace in life was the convenient hotel bar. Its beer was his only method of travel into unfamiliar regions, temporarily free from the realities of existence. True, it was not an English public house, offering the attractions of fireplace, sawdust floor and small tables, where a free man could discuss politics with statesmen, but he liked to line up with his foot on the rail, shoulder to
shoulder with other malcontents, and remark that “everything is a bloomin’ swindle.” Unwelcome leisure made him a homicide of time. In his sober moments the thought of home filled his soul with gloom.
Mrs. Criglet felt that the Canadian habit of frowning upon the convivial custom of women drinking in a bar was a restriction upon feminine liberty. For the first year she was a bibulous suffragette, but public opinion overawed her, and she became an irregular customer of the liquor shop just around the corner. A considerable portion of her time was spent in trying to outwit the charitable societies, and her efforts were fairly successful. It was an evil year when she failed to secure three Christmas dinners, through an exhibition of religious fervor which was strangely lacking during the rest of the year.
Miss Belinda Criglet, having reached the ripe age of seventeen years, was contemplating matrimony. Her affianced wás a person of the world who had drifted into the city from other lands, not specifically defined. He was somewhat gorgeous in apparel, a trifle nervous in the fingers, a bit shifty about the eyes, ^nd more voluble regarding certain of his personal exploits than the intervals
between them. Seeing him through the romantic cloud of a two weeks’ acquaintance, Miss Belinda found him fascinàting. Her mother, though somewhat aggrieved at the prospect of losing her assistance in household matters, was wonderfully amused, and secretly delighted that her daughter was following her example in assuming the responsibilities of married life at a tender age.
"Young ’uns will be young ’uns,” declared Mrs. Criglet, with a formidable and illuminating wink.
“One less at tvble,” remarked Mr. Criglet, with an air of profound ennui.
Master Bill Criglet, at the age of fifteen, was one of the most enterprising members of “The Gay Cat Gang.” This organization of human and happy felines existed for the purpose of being a terror to the neighborhood. Among their diversions were such practices as deluging policemen with dirty water from the vantage ground afforded by third and fourth storeys, shooting the hats off pedestrians with powerful sling shots, making nights in the park hideous, picking pockets and breaking into freight cars. After spending several unprofitable months in the care of the Children’s Aid Societies, he was packed off to an industrial school to learn a trade and wear a uniform.
The young Criglets spent most of their time in dodging the truant officer and selling papers on the streets.
The wonder of the family was Blossom Criglet. She was given her name by a charitable worker who had an imagination. The vanity of motherhood would not permit Mrs. Criglet to change it, so the chance word stuck to the baby. Strange to relate, she seemed to grow into it. Her case was one of those often encountered in the slums, for which no reason can be given beyond ascribing it to some freak of Nature. In the midst of a family which had few agreeable traits, this child blossomed in person as well as in name. Like a pure white flower growing in a bog, she was so wonderfully beautiful and fragile that her continued existence seemed to be a miracle.
During the first hard winter, when the frost gripped the slums, congealing them into a vast Chamber of Horrors, the Criglets went down to the lowest depths of poverty and despair. The long-suffering charitable societies did not desert them, but supplied them with enough to keep the spark of life smouldering. Mr. Criglet, ejected from his only haven, the bar, vented his feelings upon his family. The young Criglets prowled about the streets like hungry little wolves, almost disdain-
ing the police in their search for opulent crusts. Merciful diphtheria swept away the twins ; and one cold day the small life of Blossom Criglet flickered out like the flame of a white wax candle.
At last, winter ended and summer came, but the fortunes of the family did not improve; instead they revolved in a descending spiral.
Let us lift the blind of the Criglet window on a black night in March, 1911. They are sitting around their stove. There are five empty chairs, those of Miss Belinda, Master Bill, the twins and little Blossom. The smallest Criglet opens the stove door and looks in. The fire is out. He draws his tattered coat about him and goes over to a corner and curls up on the floor. His sister, who has been staring listlessly at a battered pair of shoes, which are not her own, begins to cry silently to herself.Mrs. Criglet goes over to the cupboard, looks in, and returns to her chair. The broken window behind Mr. Criglét is stopped with a bundle of rags, which fall suddenly to the floor, allowing a blast of cold air to enter. Mr. Criglet rouses from his gloomy reverie.
“Missus,” he says, as he looks slowly about the room, “would to Heaven that we had never left old Lunnon. It’s the same life—only colder,”
There are hundreds of Blogetts and Criglets in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. They have come during the last few years; they are coming now, and will crowd the smaller cities in the next decade. The seeds of the slums cling to them, and are transplanted with them. Little Italys, Little Russias, Little Polands and Little Whitechapel > flourish like rank weeds in the fertils soil of Canadian cities. The tendency of these people is to herd together, and they are encouraged by unsanitary housing. Consequently, poverty is concentrated into slums, which threaten to pollute the life of the country. The way to fight the slums in Canada is to break it to fragments, and scatter these far apart. The inhabitants must be separated and planted in the suburbs, where the clean kind earth and pure air will co-operate with religion and education to regenerate them. Create in parents the desire to own and improve a home, instead of paying rent for a wretched dwelling. Keep children in the open, away from the inevitable evils of
congestion, and educate them in the public schools. Encourage in their parents the dormant love of beauty and cleanliness, which is implanted in the nature of every human being. Keep hotels and liquorstores out of the suburbs. Provide cheap and rapid transportation to the centré oí the city for the carriage of adults to and from their work.
What will result from the adoption of such a social policy mayfbe deduced from the following statements, which, beingmade on reliable authority, court the full -est investigation. Out of one hundred and seventy families in Donscourt, Toronto, who received charity three years ago, only one needed help this winter; and out of one hundred and twelve families in Fychwood, the adjoining suburb, who were a burden on the community three years ago, not even one requires assistance today. They are paying for their homes; their children are happy students; they are neither hungry nor cold. Hope and joy are in their hearts; courage and self respect in their souls. They have become citizens of Canada, and are no longer the adult wards of the nation.