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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter IV. — The Example of Leeds.—a Chapter of the Past.—Individualism V. Municipalism

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Chapter IV.

The Example of Leeds.—a Chapter of the Past.—Individualism V. Municipalism.

After Sheffield, Leeds at first gives promise of something better, something more of social order and cleanliness than what lies south in smoke and ugliness. The appearance of the large open square upon which all the main arteries of traffic converge, the fine public buildings and modern shops, tempt one to say off-hand, "Leeds is certainly better than Sheffield." I saw Leeds under sunlight the first morning 1 strolled through its leading thoroughfares. It was building arches, and lines of bunting were fluttering gaily into the breeze in preparation for the first visit of the King to the city since his coronation. Nothing could have been better to impress one with the importance and activity of the commercial capital of Yorkshire.

But there were two things that would not escape observation—the extraordinary blackness of the buildings, and the frequency with which dirty faces and dirty clothes passed along its busy streets, The two elements for a time jarred amid such fine thoroughfares and buildings, but were speedily obliterated by the joy of that sunny morning and the festive note of flags and greenery. I found myself gathering up impressions and consolidated them into kind words for this busy, black City of Leeds. As a matter of fact, I want now to say some unkind things, and show how, through errors of that past, it has in existence many social mistakes to-day—mistakes that offer a powerful example to young and rapidly-developing communities.

Leeds is essentially a manufacturing centre, with a population of 463,495. It engages from 30,000 to 40,000 of the populace in the manufacture of readymade clothing. Owing to commercial usage and the conditions under which the industry has developed, "sweating" has become intimately associated with it. Its workers are, in consequence, some of the poorest and worst-housed classes in the city. There is sweating in the East end of London of a type and magnitude that beggars description. It flourishes, too, in the boot trades at Leicester, in capmaking at Manchester, in various trades in Birmingham. It has, as a matter of ordinary fact, its roots in almost every part of industrial England. But throughout the country there are no conditions associated with this payment of wages glaringly below the lowest possible cost of living that are conceivably worse than those to be found in Leeds.

The city bears vivid confirmation of the truth that out of the past the present has developed. In 1865 Leeds had reached the extreme of mismanagement. For thirty years previous the town had been under Liberal administration, and it was an example of the fallacy that individualism through private enterprise and monopoly could do better than the collective forces of the Municipality. The work of the town was largely let out on contract. A perfunctory supervision of plans was responsible for a wholesale growth of houses devoid of almost any provision for sanitation and densely, overcrowded. As a consequence, narrow tortuous thoroughfares sprang into existence side by side with those left by antiquity. Gas was supplied by a pri- page 32 vate company at excessive rates, facilities for passenger traffic were similarly controlled, and of a most primitive description. The water supply was totally inadequate, and had to be eked out by water from private and public wells. The apathy of the Municipality helped to develop the impending crisis. Its true functions were submerged in this process of laisser faire, by which the landlord was allowed to overcrowd his land to the maximum with jerry-built houses, and the vested interests of the small traders, the hotels, and other commercial classes Were completely safeguarded against any disturbing element of progress. The capacity of the Municipality, in fact, was Unrecognised and wholly subjected to the usages of private enterprise. The Council itself was composed of members drawn from the very classes who were responsible for those usages. So it was that after 30 years of public apathy and mismanagement, consequences could not be but inevitable.

A steadily rising death rate suddenly quickened the latent social conscience of the people. The rate per thousand had reached 32.3 (it is at present 16.0). Official reports showed that typhus, diarrhoea, and dysentery existed in almost every part of the town. In the more crowded areas the condition of things was much worse, aggravated by the existence of a large number of cellar dwellings.

The cellar dwelling is one of the worst horrors of nineteenth century housing. When first constructed it was never intended for anything but coals or lumber. The rapidly increasing population of the city, consequent upon the expansion of industry to the detriment of agriculture, and the growth of poverty, brought them other uses. "There were plenty of cellars which were used for coals 10 years ago that are now the only room of one or more families" is the statement of a poor law official of the time. It was thus that the cellar dwellings came to be built and let as part of the habitable portion of each row of dwellings for workers.

The medical evidence and the efforts of some progressive individuals woke Leeds up to something of the condition of affairs. Meetings were held, and, with the assistance of the local papers, pressure was brought to bear on the authorities, until a meeting of representative bodies was called to consider the crisis that had arisen. The opinion of the time as to how far the Municipality should "interfere"' with its people is certainly suggested by the result of the Council's deliberations. Apparently, after much cogent reflection, the following advertisement was inserted in the local Press: "Notice is hereby given that tickets for lime or white-washing, and the use of a brush, can be had on the written recommendation of the Aldermen and Councillors of each ward, or from any gentleman of the respective ward committees."

But public clamour and the claims of the progressives were not to be denied. The Privy Council in London was prevailed upon to send a medical officer to make an independent investigation. His report is one of the most remarkable documents in the history of English Municipalities. It showed that Leeds was in an appalling insanitary condition. Thousands of tons of filth filled the public receptacles, whilst scores of tons were strewn about. The reason for this accumulation was evident in the fact that the work was let out as a private contract, and only 45 carts were used to deal with the refuse of a population of 230,000. The domestic conveniences were in a shockingly overcharged condition. Whole areas were found in which the ashpit and other sanitary arrangements were immediately underneath bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms. Several properties were found that had no such

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A Sun Bath in the Slums.

A Sun Bath in the Slums.

A Sun Bath in the Slums.

A Sun Bath in the Slums.

Entrance to a Slum Court.

The houses, being built back to back, get little sunlight or air from the courtyard, owing to the height of the walls.

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arrangements whatever. The drainage system was condemned in that it did not include many populous streets, the poorer quarters being, of course, the sufferers. The condition of things with the water supply was even worse. It was found that a fellmonger was pouring each week into the stream, from which the supply was derived, the waste liquid in which a thousand skins had been washed. A rag merchant, who collected both English and foreign rags, regularly washed his wares in the stream. "Have seen sewers run cleaner." was the medical officer's comment.

The Mid-Victorian Council was equal to the occasion. They decided not to make the document public, but allowed any ratepayer to see it who took the trouble to call and make application a the Town Hall. They asserted that the M.H.O. had only seen the worst parts of the town inhabited by "the large proportion of low Irish population."

This propensity for defending an existing order of things, however bad they may be, has many parallels in English affairs. It usually comes from nothing more than a conflict between vested interests and progress. In few cases downright narrowness of thought and prejudice may be discerned; but only a few. The great cause is the vested interests of the slum landlord, the breweries, the slum pawnbroker, the slum tradesmen, and with them it is identified with a heap of commercial immorality.

Notwithstanding the horrible condition of things in Leeds in 1865, the city retained its Liberal representation for a further period of twenty-four years. It slowly and grudgingly admitted the force of the collective idea contained in the Municipality. For the most part, the policy of the Council was in the direction of discrediting its possibilities as a public body for the common weal. The death rate came down point by point as the years advanced. It seemed as if a little light was, with that factor, breaking upon the social darkness of the city. But it was no less than what other Municipalities were passing through. It was a simple indication of the growth in England of co-operation in communities. The old negligent individualism that had been so passionately proclaimed in earlier years, the individualism that to-day has resulted in the Rockefeller and Harriman types, began to give way before the slow unfolding of a social conscience. The progress was funereal but certain.

Towards 1890, a new force that had been developing through dark years, suddenly made itself felt in Leeds. The Municipal Gas Workers rose in revolt against the system in vogue of working twelve hour shifts, and actually won the day for a reduction to eight hours. The Council locked them out at first, but the public could not get on without gas and sided with the workers. That was a beginning of a series of blows to the openly organised opposition to municipal reform that had been imposed so long by the members of the Council themselves. The workers who had up to this time looked to the existing political parties for reformation suddenly entered into public life, as a keen, alert and agitated body. The oft repeated promises of Liberals and Tories were flung aside. Labour became class conscious.

What was going on in Leeds was common to every other industrial centre in Britain. The dominant belief of the movement was that private individuals and companies necessarily contracted for the public services to make profits out of the community, whilst the Municipality could trade in trams, water, gas, sanitation, etc., for efficiency and the public benefit.

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It was just at this time when Labour was making itself felt in British municipal life, Leeds had to consider the tramway system in vogue. The Liberals were for giving the private company that controlled them a further lease of life. The Labour party, however, brought pressure to bear on the authorities, and a public meeting was called to elicit public feeling. The consequence was Leeds took the trams in hand herself. It was the best thing the city had done for years. To-day the tramways are one of the best equipped systems in England, a considerable improvement has been effected in the wages and condition for employees to what existed under private ownership, and the profits from the undertaking amount to £34,000 a year. As the whole of this money goes in relief of rates, the actual saving to the city is £108,000 per year.

It is necessary here to point out that whatever may have been the policy of Liberals in places like Leeds, the assumption that this is characteristic of the modern Liberal spirit by no means follows. The record of the Mid-Victorian Liberals in the matter of social betterment for the people is much on a par with that of the Tories (or Unionists as they are called to-day). It was the failure of both to remedy the extraordinary conditions under which the industrial population lived and worked that produced the Labour party. To-day, therefore, the Labour party is essentially a progressive and independent force in British municipal life.

I do not want to reproduce here merely a journalist's description of what may be seen night or day in those miles of crowded houses that make up so much of the city. The actual facts presented by the Municipal Medical Health Officer, Dr. Cameron, are much more important and to the point. He and his assistants have, in recent years, conducted a thorough and careful investigation, and carried out certain milk experiments in crowded districts with regard to infant mortality, which is very heavy in parts of the city.

The ordinary death-rate per thousand is 16.0. In South-East Leeds, one of the main sub-divisions of the city, the rate of infant mortality is 187.9. In one of the very crowded areas of this district more than half the children die in infancy. Compared with these rates, it is interesting to note the rates for Great Britain and Wales (138), New South Wales (93), and New Zealand (73). The above figures are taken from the vital statistics for 1906.

In 1903, some progressive people in Leeds laid a proposal before the Sanitary Committee of the Municipality for the establishment of a depot for the supply of sterilised milk. The idea was to feed a number of mothers and infants in a poor district and obtain a comparison with results in the same district where the ordinary commercial milk was consumed. The Council, however, regarded the proposal as a menace to private interests and the investigation had to be carried out by public subscription.

The results were very striking. In the district where ordinary milk was consumed the circumstances of 1291 mothers were investigated. They had had born to them 5483 children. At the time of inquiry it was found that no fewer than 2933 had died. "In this district of Leeds." says the M.H.O., "in families which should be increasing the women still of the child-hearing age had actually already lost more than 53 per cent of their offspring." That poverty, hunger and dirt, overcrowding and alcoholism, ignorance and superstition, are amongst the potent causes of infantile mortality, is the opinion of Dr. Cameron. The extraordinary ignorance prevailing amongst these people is indicated by the prevalent superstition that the woman who has page 35 already lost half the children born to her is alone competent to advise the young mother as to the care of her offspring.

The children in the same district who were fed on depot milk did much better. Whilst it was found that the death rate amongst the infants who were fed on milk drawn from the ordinary supply was 225.3, that for the depot children was 153.3. The difference between the figures speaks volumes for the necessity of an absolutely uncontaminated milk supply in any modern town or city life.

Any investigation of the conditions inside the homes of the great majority of families in Leeds must reveal a sorry state of things. The ignorance in regard to the mode of feeding infants is frightful. Instead of the child receiving its proper natural food, for specified reasons it is fed with bread, with shop milk, and various patent foods. When the mother goes out to work, as she frequently does, the baby, if it is not left under the care of an elder child, is handed over to some old woman, who, for a few pence a day, looks after the children of absent parents. The baby, in consequence, is subjected during the daytime to artificial feeding. The nature of the food too often induces gastric disturbance in the child, to relieve which the nurse resorts to patent soothing syrups, infants' preservatives and other dangerous substances. Look at this fact: Of all the children born in the second quarter of 1905, more than half were found to be taking some medicament unordered by a medical man. For all this appalling ignorance one can hardly blame the people. Houses terribly defective and dirty, and sweated wages, associated as they have been from the earliest days of the industrial revolution in England, are sufficient to keep these people down in the depths of their uneducated lives. A few may get away, but the majority remain. And it is that majority that is the problem partly produced and accentuated to a large degree by the economic and social conditions in which they are born, bred, and exist.

Because of the tardiness of the authorities to-day in dealing with the legacies of the past, Leeds is backward in its housing and industrial conditions. Rows and rows of "back-to-baek" houses are a common feature. Vested interests are strong enough to make the city a peculiar offender in still allowing this highly insanitary type of house to be built, although the M.H.O. has been condemning the practice for years. Amongst, and part of, these desperate housing conditions, are numerous small factories or workshops, wherein "Home workers" are engaged. It is with the latter "sweating" is rife, and unfortunately they are seldom, if at all, subject to legalised factory inspection.

The bulk of the 2378 registered workshops in Leeds belong to the "domestic" variety, where a man and his family work independent of his neighbours. It is a curious survival of the out-of-date that nearly the whole of the bread, cakes, etc., in the city are made by these private families. Numbers of the places are underground, and though subject to inspection, the conditions under which one of the staple foods of the community is produced are far from appetising. After seeing several, one begins to look askance at the bread that appears on the hotel table at meal time. It is patent that such a minute division of labour in the production of a public necessity not only complicates the problem of distribution, but is economically bad and expensive. The majority of these home bakers undergo a hard struggle for existence.

The ready-made clothing (also sack making) is one of the worst of the "sweated" industries of Leeds. In the factories themselves, where a large number of young girls are employed, for what page 36 to colonials appear excessively long hours, the rate of wages is very low. Long hours in a close atmosphere, incessant whirring of machines, and grinding monotony of occupation under the piecework-system, have a deadening effect upon girls. It is very apparent in the pale faces and the mechanical and sometimes dispirited manner in which the work is turned out. Little wonder can be felt that after working hours so many seek change and excitement often by methods that can only be deplored.

The best and most up-to-date of the large factories usually employ several thousand hands, and have as many as 1900 sewing machines at work in one buliding of three floors. The machines are driven off shafting, and as one passes from floor to floor there is a powerful picture forced upon the mind of hundreds of female faces fixed intently on the invisible needle and working like the devil. Everybody is paid by the piece. It is certainly one of the better sides to the industry in Leeds. The workers do get on the whole tolerable light and atmosphere, proper conveniences, and on the ground floor the girls have a large dining-room and a cook at their disposal. Three cups of tea for a penny is not a bad record of one big firm's consideration towards its employees. But when one goes into the question of wages and working hours, these advantages do not seem to count for much.

It is the practice of most of the big firms to put out quantities of material to be made up in the homes of the outworkers. The rate of wage paid is miserably inadequate for the decent welfare of body and soul, even supposing the workers knew how to spend it to the best advantage. Unfortunately they do not. Many are from one cause or another industrial, physical and social wrecks, and it is well known that they have to work excessively long hours. The application of the provisions of a Factory and Work-shop Act to these thousands of homes is hardly practicable, and where inspection is at all lax, the Act is virtually a dead letter. Factory inspection in Leeds, as elsewhere, is very inefficient compared with Australasian standards.

The worst feature is that children have to take a hand. There are thousands of children who are known as half-timers, that is to say, children from the age of 12, are permitted to work half-a-day's working hours and spend the remainder in schools. Many of the children of the outworkers of Leeds are "half-timers." and what with defective housing, poor food, and the strain of enforced occupation from daylight to dark, it is little wonder that Leeds contains a heavy proportion of unhealthy and degenerate workers.

Many instances could be given and multiplied showing the terrible results amongst man, woman and child, produced under the conditions related. England to-day is being flooded with literature on the subject. It all points to the great blunder of nineteenth century industrial development—the blunder of individualism. It was no doubt a requisite condition before society could arrive at something better. The liberty of the subject—the watchword of early Victorian politicians and individualists—far from bringing freedom at all, only resolved itself into a privilege of commercial kings to keep down their armies of workers. Nobody was individually to blame except where downright slavery prevailed. It was a great social and industrial experiment, out of which has sprung the increasing perception of and movement towards the collective ideal.

Such is the record of Leeds, with many of its characteristic indications of English industrial life. Throughout its miles of crowded, congested streets, along the banks of that horrible, black stream, page 37 the River Aire, winding amongst some of the most sultry parts in one city, those frightful problems of our latterday civilisation stare at one naked and unashamed. What more potent example could be offered to colonial cities and towns, expanding with rapidity, and development, of the dangers awaiting communities that fail to recognise the imperative duties and the tremendous force for progress in the future contained today in each and every municipality?