Lambeth Women Speak (originally Streets and Lanes of the City) by Nellie Benson, 1890
[return to table of contents]
6-KEEPING COMPANYTHE DARKER SIDE
Sometimes it is nobody's fault when things go wrong. There was a rough and
honest girl living opposite the volunteer's young lady, whose young man was
a sailor. He made more than one voyage, and she was uniformly faithful and glad
to greet him when he came home.
Then he went away to China and was to be absent two years, and before going
he said he knew she'd be faithful to him, and he never had thought of anybody
else, and didn't think she would either, and she said no, she'd never thought
of such a thing as "turning him up," and she never would.
So he went; and she wrote laboriously to him every week, for she certainly
was, as her family were, the soul of faithfulness and honesty. The family made
friends everywhere by virtue of their sterling qualities. A typical instance
of this occurred once when three of them had gone to stay in the country for
a week, but at the end of the week wanted to stay on. So they asked the woman
they lodged with if she would trust them, and they would pay her after they
got home. She consented without hesitating, as anyone would be inclined to do
who knew the Carters. When they got back they sent her the money and a shilling
over, and a set of mustard spoons as a tribute of gratitude.
There was never a family who passed more satisfactorily the ordeal of examination
by the Charity Organization Society, when Mrs. Carter was ill and needed change.
There never was a family on better terms with their neighboursgood and
bad. When Mrs. Carter came back from a country holiday, the whole court turned
out to greet her, and to exclaim, "Well, Mrs. Carter, you are red in the
face, aren't yer?" "Well, my gracious, I shouldn't ardly ave known
yer; you've grown so stout." There was never ill word spoken of them.
Ellen waited and wrote faithfully. On Sunday afternoons she would not even
go out, but sat at home. Imagine therefore how she was cut to the heart when
a letter came with the most pathetic appeal to her not to give him up: he had
not had one word from her. It was a letter to harrow anyone to the heart. For
he sent her a pressed flower and photograph of himself dressed like a Chinaman
under a paper umbrella; and he said how two of his mates who'd had young ladies
at home had each of them been turned up by his girl, and how he (Ellen's intended)
had told them he was sure his girl would never turn him up, and how was it she
didn't write. And then he ended, "It's only two years to wait, and I'm
ready to wait that faithful for you, and, Ellen, can't you wait it for me?"
Ellen was a girl who was both plump and florid. After that letter she fretted
till she grew pale and thin; and had to take her dresses in quite a large piece.
But at last happiness was restored to her. She heard that her letters had begun
to reach him, and that he was comforted.
Sometimes a courtship begun most happily has an unexpected, unhappy ending.
Such was the case in a rather strange way with a girl, by name Emily Miller.
Emily at the age of seventeen began to keep company with a most "desirable"
young mana schoolteacher, who on Sundays wore stuck-up collars and beautiful
ties, and sometimes handed round the plate in church.
He was rather above her in station; but still Emily was a clever girl and very
good company; and it was an edifying sight to see the two walking through the
churchyard side by side, he tall and slimhe was over six feet highand
she with the peculiar trimness and smartness that a London girl knows how to
impart cheap attire. Both were communicants; he was a Sunday School teacher,
and she was soon to be one.
So matters went on for six months or more, but after a while Emily began to
look harassed and worried. She was a girl from whom it was a laborious task
to get confidences: not that she was unwilling to give them; she would come
for an interview with that express purpose, but when she came this kind of colloquy
"Well, how's all going with you?"
"Pretty well." Emily begins to colour slightly.
"Everything really all right?"
Silence on Emily's part.
"Is it, Emily?"
Silence. Emily grows redder.
"Is anything wrong?"
"Oh, well, never mind. You know I never want to know anything you'd rather
not tell me! We'll talk about other things."
Emily moves on her chair, and then says very low,
"I do want to tell you."
"Then do tell me."
"Don't be afraid, my dear; tell me."
"You are sure you want to? Perhaps after all you would rather not."
"I do want to tell youvery much."
"Then can't you tell me now?"
"Would you rather write a letter and tell me so?"
Emily was a very good letter writer.
"No; I'd rather say it."
Then the same round was gone through again. At last Emily got it out by fragments.
"For one thing, things ain't right at home. Mother and father hasn't been
on the best of terms, and when I hear them having a few words it makes me feel
as though I could go out and never go home anymore; and there's something else
But what that something else was could not be discovered then. Next day came
a letter. "There is something I feell as though I want to tell you, and
yet I caun't for one thing I do not like going to ____ Church for that young
man I used to go out with. I am really afraid to go down by the church at night
in case he was to spring out on me, for he told me something that set me against
him. Wherever I go he seems to be, for sometimes when I go out in the morning
he is outside of my house, and I feell as though I can't speak to me [him],
and it seems as though all the things come on top of each other, for what of
him and others I feell as though I don't know whate to do with myself; but it
is of no use of woorying about it, although I caun't help it. I do not go out
with him now to till you the truth, I am afraid of him I do not think he is
quite right. I got quite afraid of him but it seems as though weather I go he
seems to be, and he got playing about once or twice and I did not like it."
Further inquiry showed that the young man had been dismissed from the school
for bullying the little boys, but he had always been thought rather a "soft"
and a coward; that one did not know where he was living; that his strange and
bad talk had frightened and disgusted her so that she had refused to go out
with him; but now he followed her up to work, and in the evening waited for
her there and walked home behind her.
"And close to our house, miss, there's that bit of dark street, you know
it; the lamps don't show any light down it, and there's always a lot of rough
girls and young men standing about there. I don't like going through it. And
one evening I was going homethere's another young girl where I work goes
home with me nearly all the wayand I'd said good-night to her and turned
down there, when he" the poor child began to shake all over and sob"hejumped
out upon me thereright upon me. I screamed out loud and tried to get away,
and he struck me; and the girls only laughedand then screamedand
a man came outand then he ran awayand now I am afraid every night
he'll do it again."
"But my dear, you ought to be protected of course. Why didn't you tell
Emily was crying too much to speak. At last she said, "I daren't tell
mother; she'd say it was my fault. I dread going home at night now, for when
I get in they seem to begin on me, and she and father'd say it was my fault,"
and she cried so much that no more could be done than to see her safely home.
Next day came a pathetic note.
"Do not tell anybody two much about what I told you about what he said
to me when he sprang out on me when I was going home. I think he might write
and my mother or father might open the letter, and I wouldant have mother or
father know for anything. I don't know what they would think of me. I am sure
I should of told mother only I now they would always be telling me of it when
their was any words at home, and I should feel it more then. I must tell you
I don't feel so bad now I have told you; I have wanting to tell you, but I have
not liked to. Do not mind the writing as I wrote it in bed."
Of course the matter was looked to. Emily was sent away for a fortnight's change,
and the young man watched, and after a while he left the neighborhood.
He had only given her two presents in the course of their acquaintancea pair of gloves and a Bible. The gloves were worn out and could not be returned; Emily sent back the Bible. She wrote, "I have done as you said and I feell happier. I feell very lonely now."
Would there were no blacker stories! Rosie Lander was a girl with a great
deal of presence about her. Black-haired, with keen eyes that had a veiled,
mocking look about them. One could never forget that she was in the room. When
she desired it she could be the centre of whatever was going on; though sometimes
it would please her to be completely silent for hours together. Dumb Crambo
can hardly be said to afford an adequate field for the display of dramatic powers,
but Rosie's acting was surprising. She had also an illimitable power of keeping
her countenance; and was witty. She made great friendships and fierce enmities.
She had, if one may use the vague phrase, "animal magnetism" about
her. She was not pretty, nor had she marked features, but she was more striking
looking than many prettier girls, and in a pink print at 13/4d. the yard,
would look far the best dressed person in the room.
She had come of a very satisfactory family, well dressed and well educated,
and she had lived at home till she was sixteen, petted and spoilt by her father.
Then both her parents died within a few months of each other. The younger children
went into orphanages; and Rosie and a sister two years older took a dreary back
room in a monotonous street of South London, and supported themselves by "business."
The sister was a specially nice girl, affectionate and upright, and anxious
to do her duty by the others. She kept up a close correspondence with the younger
children, and spent pence she could ill spare in sending them stamps, and cakes,
and pots of jam, and going to see them.
But the change of life had a very different effect on Rosie. No doubt it was
most trying for a girl who had been used to petting, and to a pleasant home
where everything was done for her, and to a good many treats and outings, to
be exiled to this dismal back room and forced to scrape along on hardly-earned
money. The window only looked on a blank prospect of roofs and chimneys. The
room was tiny and not over clean. Often the two girls would oversleep themselves
and have to hurry off to work, and then return late in the evening after a hard
day and a long tramp home to find the bed unmade, the fire unlit, the room chilly
and untidy; and would hardly have spirits to get supper for themselves.
It was not so dreary for the elder sister, for she was engaged to a most eligible
young man in the Post Office, and he would call in to see her and take her to
see his friends. She used to ask Rosie to go with them, but three in such circumstances
is not company, and Rosie got into the habit of walking out a good deal in the
evenings, and she began to pick up acquaintances among not very desirable young
men at the place where she worked.
Presently her sister found this out and spoke to her, and Rosie resented it
very much. Her sister's fiancé also discovered it, and also spoke to
Rosie. And Rosie was rude to him. Her sharpness of tongue made her utterances
wounding. Naturally relations between the sisters began to be strained.
Then the sister was married, and Rosie departed to lodge in a family which
was by no means an edifying one for a young girl. The father was an honest man,
but his wife, Mrs. Thomas, was a strange mixture of religious emotion and carelessness;
and the young men lodgers were of an undesirable character. Rosie's friend in
the family was the eldest girla girl with much good in herwho herself
afterwards had a strange sad history. Mrs. Thomas talked a great deal about
how she would indeed try to be a mother to the motherless, with tears of genuine
emotion in her eyes, and then she both spoilt and neglected Rosie.
Rumours began to be more generally rife about her. Her manner grew almost insolent,
and she was not ashamed of being seen acting rowdily by those whose good opinion
she had hitherto courted. For example, she went out for the day with the Bible-class,
which she attended regularly, left them and was found in a flower-show, held
close by, being photographed with two young soldiers whom she had never seen
before. And expostulations were met on Rosie's part by utter silence and a disengaged
composure of manner.
Her work was very slack; and an attempt was made to get her to emigrate to some very nice cousins of hers in South Australia. She was a strong girl and full of go; and the idea seemed to attract her. Quite suddenly she changed her mind and refused to go. Things looked black.
But an unexpected turn came. She struck up a violent friendship with one of
the very nicest girls at the place where she worked, and she left Mrs. Thomas,
and went to lodge with her at her home. Amelia Hodge was a thorough good girl
and had a good home. She was hardly as "genteel" as Rosie, but her
bosom friend, Mabel, who lived two doors off, was very genteel indeed. Mabel
was an only child; a very pretty girl, and a good one; and I need mention no
more than the fact that they had a piano, and a stair-carpet, to show what desirable
acquaintances Rosie was making. Mabel was very musical; she could play and sing,
and Rosie and Amelia had useful voices. So they spent their evenings together,
singing and talking, and went to church on Sundays. The affection of the trio
was so great, that they called each other sisters.
But there was a young man also lodging at Mrs. Hodge's with whom Rosie took
up. There was nothing to be heard against his character, but certainly acquaintance
with him, or through him with others, began to influence Rosie. She began to
stay out late at night; and to be very saucy if she was spoken to. She put gaudy
feathers into her hat. She bought herself a white muslin skirt with a yellow
plush top, and quarrelled with Mabel. She went further and quarrelled with Amelia.
At last a crisis came. She did not come home one night till nearly one o'clock.
Mrs. Hodge had been sitting up waiting. She was ill, and harassed, and very
anxious about Rosie; and when she heard her knock and let her in, she began
a fierce remonstrance. Rosie heard her out, and then said, "You hold your
jaw, Mrs. Hodge, I pay for my keep, and I've a right to do as I like. What's
it to you?"
Mrs. Hodge grew excited and lost her head. "Don't you give me any more of your sauce," she said, "There, I've done for you like a mother, and kept you when work was slack, and you behaving like this, coming at this hour. I've a good mind to turn you out."
"I'll save you the trouble, Mrs. Hodge," said Rosie, "for I'm not going to stop. You give me my things now, and I'll go."
Mrs. Hodge declared she should do nothing of the kind.
"Then I'll bring them as'll make you," said Rosie, as she turned
round and went away.
In the morning she appeared again with a policeman. This breach of hospitality
was too outrageous; Mrs. Hodge let her in speechlessly. She collected her goods
After she had gone, Mrs. Hodge going to her room to erase every trace of her, found the following lettergiven in extenso:
Just a few lines to say I am quite well and hope you are the same. I hope you arrived there safe and sound not cracked. I don't know what sort of weather your having, but it is something splendid here the wind is rather high but that's no matter. I was rather tired on Friday after the pleasant evening I had the night before. Mrs. Hodge thanks you very much, and said she enjoyed herself very much indeed. Isn't Mr. Hodge getting a gay young spark he went himself on Saturday night and left Mrs. Hodge at home all by herself. Amelia went out with a young friend of her's, and I went out with Mr. and Mrs. Palliser, and spent a very pleasant evening. I was telling Mrs. Hodge about what I said outside the place where the priests wear white aprons you remember don't you about not going in if one didn't come. Dear Bill, Mr. Jones went off in quite a good temper shows he don't often go away like that or else I shouldn't notice it. But I quite forgot for the minute, you said in the Canterbury I see too much. I don't know whether you meant it or not, all the same if you did my lamps are my own. x. Saucey Somebody ask me if I kissed you 3 times in one place I'll leave you to guess what for. I said you wouldn't like me to as I don't think your fond of it enough he said I was joking as he knew better than that, so he know's something at least he thinks he does. Mrs. Palliser is a little better to-day, so she as done without you going to see her you known what I mean it sounded rather saucey on your part me being so innocent. I didn't know what you meant you may be sure I didn't if you went by the answers I give you. Believe it if you like. Dear Bill, your Mother as been here kicking up a Devil of a row of course she was Drunk. Mrs. Hodge said shall she give her them Socks as she keep's on asking for them, she went to get her money to-day and she said she came over so excited that a policeman had to take her over the road, she is a bright star for anyone to have for a mother. I pity anybody with such especially anybody I care for. Dear Bill, what do you think of the policeman I told you about the one I was talking up the area to one night just as I got outside the warehouse. I saw him knocked down by an horse and taken to the hospital poor fellow, I pity him, but I can't cry now I'll cry another day. Dear Bill, when I whispered to you in the Canterbury I said don't go and dream about Tilly again and think she is kissing you or else I shall give you What for. I had a fine dream about you I'll tell you about it when I see you again and when I get in the middle of it I shan't finish telling you as I think it is rather to strong. Mr. Hodge said will you get him 2 or 3 hard cakes of the very best tobacco. Dear Bill, just to oblige kindly excuse this awful untidy letter it is rather a dry one, but I can't help it as they keep on telling me Dinner's ready. Dear Bill, let me know if you will be up on Sunday. Mr. and Mrs. Palliser send there best respects to you. Dear Bill, I don't think I have any more time to say any more so I will enclose my letter with my Best wishes to you.
I remain with fondest Love,
From Rosie x x x x
P.S. Gives Amelia's love to Frank, and she hope's he'll keep is word and she wishes he was at home to take her to the Crystal Palace."
It is difficult for a different class to know exactly how bad such a letter
is. Mrs. Hodge's disgust and wrath knew no bounds.
"I wouldn't have kept her another day in my house," she said. "To think a young girl like that could write such a thing. How does it come here? Why, because he was so disgusted with it that he sent it back. Well, I hadn't any idea what that girl was like. And me been so good to her. Why, to show you how thoughtful I've been and kind to her, I broke an umbrella only last week over my own daughter's back, because I said she shouldn't speak so unkind to an orphan. Well, my eyes are opened. I see the sort she is. And where she's gone to nobody knows."
But Rosie had been more prudent than anyone expected her to be after such an
"upset." She went straight back to Mrs. Thomas's, where she had lodged
before, and told her own story with moderate accuracy. Only accounting for her
having been out so late at night by a series of remarkable accidents.
Mrs. Thomas received her with open arms, chiefly out of a sort of washy good
nature in which she abounded; not out of a realisation of the girl's need and
danger, and certainly not out of desire for gain, for taking bad weeks with
good, Rosie certainly must have cost her more than the money she received from
"Well, yes, pore girl, I told her while there was a crust among us she
should share it," she said, looking out of the window with moist eyes.
"Of course, I don't excuse her altogether. Stay out late at night she certainly
did while she was here, but I think that woman [she meant Mrs. Hodge] can't
have had a mother's heart towards her. Rosie told me how she always done all
she could of the washing for her, and yet how short she'd be. And to let a girl
like that turn away from your door in the middle of the night. Well, we mustn't
blame others, must we? We've all got our faults; but Rosie's welcome to stay
here, and so I've told her."
For a while things went quietly. Rosie would not hear a word as to her own
conduct; she was the most well conducted of womankind, according to her own
account. After a few weeks a sentence in Mrs. Thomas's letter told the old tale:
"What I say to you is between ourselves, but there is a young man, and
he has not got a good influence over her, but if you write to her do not take
any notice of what I have said, but you can ask her for yourself."
This was a new young man. He was the son of a respectable chimney-sweep living
near, and was reported to be a good workman. Rosie said she had known him a
long time. But she herself looked less and less satisfactory. She was hardly
ever in till twelve at night.
A fresh turn came. Work was slack, and Rosie left it, and took a place as "general" to a Frenchwoman living in a tiny flat in the west of London. For a while her mistress's broken English, and the queer dishes she made up out of vegetables, took Rosie's fancy, and she seemed to have settled. Then she went to see her married sister, and played with the baby and gave general satisfaction.
Then suddenly came a reverse again, as the following letter from her married
sister will show:
"I am glad you saw Rosie, as I have not seen her for some weeks; it is
entirely her own fault, she is as welcome here as anybody; but she came to me
one evening when she was at her place, and brought me her washing; it was about
8 o'clock one Thursday night, and I had done my own, and baby was very troublesome.
I said I could not do it; I had enough to do to think of my own duties, and
to see after the other three without being bothered with her [Rosie]; that was
all I said; she turned round, and as she went out of the door never said good-bye
or kissed baby, but said she should never come here again, and if I wanted to
see her I should have to go there. She knows I would do anything for her, but
she is so bouncable when she comes here I cannot make her out. I am willing
to be friends with her, but if she never came here I shall never go and see
her, because it is her fault, and I don't deserve to be treated like it. I am
sure I am always thinking about her, and wishing she would come, for it would
be company for us both. Mrs. Thomas came here once or twice, and got talking
about her to me, which I am sure I did not much approve of as she is my own
sister, and I don't like to hear it."
Then, at last, came the crash. Rosie left her place. She went to her sister's to tea, left her things there, and said she would call for them. She did not come for days. The sister went round frightened to Mrs. Thomas's; they had not seen her except once in the street with the young man, Tom Burn.
The only chance to hear of her was at his mother's; and there, indeed, there
was much to be heard.
"You've come about that girl," she said. "I wish she'd never
darkened these doors. Why, if it weren't for her, my boy'd have been living
respectable with me and his father now. She've led him away. Ah, I've told him
my mind; I've told him as he must never show his face at home againa son
o' mine to come to that. She's done it, with her talk and her scheming. He was
as nice and honest a young feller as you ever see, and now she's ruined him."
And then followed a blacker tale than Rosie's friends have ever quite believed.
"Where is he now? You can hear of him where he works. I've wished him dead
before me sooner than this should have happened."
After a while they were foundliving in apparent comfort; both going out
to work every day. Rosie said they were married, but she refused to say where;
she was polite and unmoved. Her sister when she heard of it was in such distress
that she made herself ill. She "fretted so after Rosie."
Then Rosie and Bill left the room where they were living, and were lost sight
of. After about a year came the good news that they were married, and were doing
That year had been a terrible one to both of them. They had been almost at the point of starvation, and Rosie had fallen ill and nearly died. She had been frightened; they both had felt vaguely that this was a judgment on them. And then they had resolved to be married, and so bit by bit had fought their way back to respectability and comfort. Now they are doing well. Rosie has a younger brother living with her. She is not much softened to outer appearances by her troubles; but she has evidently made up her mind to be respectable, as she had before made it up the other way. And she has plenty of force to carry out her resolves.
go to next chapter