W. S. B. (William Smythe Babcock) Mathews.

Byeways of two cities online

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they will have a study of human nature as ap-
palling as our empire can supply. A place like
the Cowgate, where outcasts herd together in
surprising numbers, is an intricate network of
dens as closely packed as cells in a honeycomb.
Stand for a minute in one of the closes, and
remember that a population as large as a
moderate village dwell in that confined area !
Nay, further; in the rooms approached by one
flight of stairs, between two and three hundred
wretched beings have been found crowding
together in shocking indecency, without a ray
of hope either for this world or the next ! The
most commonplace necessaries of life are never


theirs. They do not know what enjoyment
means ! There are sinners here who have
forgotten, or who never knew, the difference
between right and wrong ! Virtue could not
preserve her purity untarnished for an hour in
their pestiferous haunts ! As though prompted
by the demon of despair, these poor creatures
seek to deaden the pain of their monotonous
misery by swallowing the vile cheap whiskey
which is sold at their very doors and sold,
perhaps, by their own heartless landlord, who
feeds like a vampire on the degradation and
final ruin of his helpless tenants and cus-

The Rev. John Pirie's mission church in the
Cowgate now numbers nine hundred members,
nearly a fourth part of whom have been added
during one year. It was agreeably surpris-
ing to find that so fine a mission station is
fast becoming self - supporting ; for, while we
scarcely comprehend how persons who possess


' one half-crown to rub on the back of another '
can live in so notorious a rookery, the pastors
do not complain of any painful lack of money
among the populace. On the contrary, money
must abound, when more than thirty spirit
shops are liberally supported in one street.
Though it is not easy to say whence the money
comes, it seems obvious that many persons of
stations in life superior to the locality are con-
tent to live in the lowest parts of Edinburgh.
Printers, compositors, and skilled workmen,
whose families should be the pride of better
homes, are found neighbouring with Scotch
cadgers and Irish hodmen. Such is the varied
constituency ; and we honour the men who, like
Mr. Pirie in the Cowgate, and Mr. Tasker in the
Westport, have taken up their position and are
devoting time and talent to the highest service.
This they do, not as evangelists merely, but as
ordained pastors, qualified and selected for work
peculiarly arduous. They are pastors, too, whose


preaching powers to judge from a sample we
heard in the Westport church might be co-
veted by the most wealthy churches of the city.
In the low parts of Edinburgh Old Town
public -houses and pawn-shops abound; and
these appear to work in unison, if we may judge
from the number of pledges which whiskey-
slaves are constantly offering in their mad
eagerness for stimulants. More than eighty
spirit- shops may be counted during a walk from
Holyrood to the Castle, and many hundreds
of others exist in the various districts of the
city. I learned that as many as eleven thou-
sand pledges have been taken at one pawning
establishment in a single month in the begin-
ning of the year, the articles including trinkets,
books, clothing, and household furniture. I
even heard of a Bible having been snatched
from the pillow of a poor invalid, to procure
money for purchasing spirits ! I heard fur-
ther of a man, whose wife had so repeatedly


pawned his Sabbath clothes in order to gratify
her craving for drink, that at length, to save
his garments, he resorted to the necessary but
inconvenient expedient of changing the suit for
another at a neighbour's, each Sunday evening
before returning home. In such an atmosphere
childhood is contaminated before it can know
the meaning of either virtue or sin. Even chil-
dren learn to become drunkards, and unless
they are rescued in time especially the girls
they pass swiftly onward to reinforce the ranks
of crime and immorality.

In these lurking-places of sin the children
must form the basis of our hopes for the
future; and the crowded condition of the
children's church leads us to anticipate refor-
mation and renovation for these abodes of
squalor and vice. It is easy to see at a glance
that there are many rough gems among the
Edinburgh Arabs. A vein of humour runs
through their nature, which may be either


amusing or annoying, obliging those who know
them best to tell us that they are characterised
by 'a matchless impudence.' They are, how-
ever, willing learners and eager readers, so
that, considering the amount of trash they
devour while lacking wholesome literary food,
it will be well when the asked-for library is
provided. Some of the children have curious
histories histories which show that philan-
thropic feeling can live even in the Cowgate.
' It is years now since,' says Mr. Pirie, ' visiting
in one of the closes, I entered a humble abode,
the dwelling-place of a poor but honest and
hard-working family. While I was conversing
with the mother, a little girl entered the room,
apparently from school, and commenced a
meal which was awaiting her. I asked if
this was her daughter, and the woman told
me that she was not. The mother of that
child had been a stranger, and without an
earthly home. In the house of that poor


family the wanderer had sickened and died,
leaving the poor child without a friend on
earth ; and this woman, out of the goodness of
her own heart, spread her own wing over the
little orphan, and for years had been unto
her as her mother. Perhaps she did more
than any of us ah 1 .' *

Any person acquainted with the poor loca-
lities of other cities, will pronounce the Edin-
burgh Cowgate to be as vile a collection of
dens as can be found in the empire. The
pastors who have spent some of their best
days here can testify to the ' almost savage de-
gradation ' which everywhere confronts one, and
which, notwithstanding the success of the
mission churches, compels the evangelists, in
their fits of despondency, to shed tears of
despair, and to regard their territory as 'a

* See Mr. Pirie's timely pamphlet, ' The Lapsed ; and
Suggestions as to the best Means of Raising them.'
(Edinburgh : John Maclaren.)


God-forsaken soil.' No nation should boast
of its civilisation while such plague-spots re-
main. ' When death cuts off a member of
the family,' says Dr. Begg, speaking of these
localities, ' how dreadful to think of all the
rest being forced to eat and sleep beside the
dead body ! We drag a dead horse out of
the stable of the living ; but here such a se-
paration is impossible. How can we wonder
that human nature, in such circumstances, is
found at the lowest point of degradation,
defying the ordinary modes of cure, and
spreading moral as well as physical evil like
a pestilence ! A decent man comes from the
country, driven, perhaps, by want of work.
He is obliged to live in one of these wretched
abodes. Let us suppose that he has been
accustomed to the decencies of society, or
even that he is a true Christian. How dread-
ful to have his children, like Lot in Sodom,
exposed to the sound of blasphemy, and the


example of every form of wickedness ! There
society is corrupted to its very core. City mis-
sionaries go their rounds in despair. Oceans
of soup and floods of water are lavished in
vain. The managers of infirmaries, the keepers
of prisons, the masters of charity workhouses,
stand aghast at a tide flowing from such a
corrupted mass, and which, instead of being
driven back, is continually rising, like the
prophetic waters, and threatening to sweep
away all that is sound and healthy in the com-

As we pass along in the mizzling rain, the
heavy flights of stone stairs look as if they
had been made privy to suffering and shame,
as well as to deeds of sin, dark and horrible,

which will remain untold till the last day !

Besides being dark and filthy, the passages

are a common receptacle for the refuse of the
rooms. ' Think now,' says our missionary,
' of a family of nine, ten, and sometimes


twelve, and in not a few instances more than
one such family, doomed to dwell day and
night, to eat, drink, lie down, sleep, and rise
up, and perform all their domestic duties in
an apartment smaller than an ordinary dressing
closet ! ' Sometimes a clean room is discovered,
and when found is as refreshing to the visitor
as an oasis to travellers in the desert. But
none can, with impunity, live clean and moral
lives in this dreadful place ; and those who try
to do so will tell the evangelist, with troubled
looks, of the annoyances which spring from
the drunken revelries of profligate neighbours.
Be you as orderly as you will, you cannot have
either peace or repose at pleasure in the Cow-
gate ; for, as if purposely designed to reduce
all its inhabitants to one level of ruin, the
house - partitions are so slight that the foul
conversation spoken in one room can be plainly
heard in another. Many a life has been wrecked
here beyond hope of recovery ! It is a region


which awakens at once our pity, sorrow, and
indignation a very devil's acre, where, having
planted their standard and marshalled their
hosts, the demons Crime and Despair success-
fully defy and resist the menaces and assaults
of Christian Scotland.

Such was the Edinburgh Cowgate in the
month of January, 1873. A more ' graphic '
delineation of its miseries and character might
have been attempted had such been my design,
but I have preferred keeping to unvarnished,
simple truth, for the sake of stimulating those
who are working, and encouraging others to aid
the good cause who have as yet held aloof.
Whence has the broad torrent of evil, at which
we have been looking, its spring ? Was there
ever an infernal conclave held to select a subtle
agent to subject and hold this seemingly-
doomed place in captivity ? If so, the demon
WHISKEY must have stood up to demand a
commission. ' Send me ! ' Drunkenness is the


master-curse of the Scotch capital, and will
continue so while the city harbours eight
hundred public-houses, or one to each two
hundred of the population ! ' Fancy,' again
says our missionary, ' thirty-one spirit-shops
some of them in threes continuously in a
small street like the Cowgate, over against its
two Protestant churches, and the revenues of
each of the spirit shops that of the church
perhaps three times over ! ' We might stand
unnerved and helpless in the presence of such
enormous evils, did not faith find reassurance
in the grand fact that the battle is not ours,
but God's.

An Englishman who first walks out into the
streets of Edinburgh speedily discovers that
whiskey is a leading article of commerce in
the city. I was even given to understand
that the poor regard beer very much as a
luxury, and retain the spirits as an every-day
beverage. The populace suffer severely by


their pernicious predilections. Nay, what is
more important, sanitary reformers are directly
tracing the relationship between disease, va-
grancy, and crime, and the drinking customs
of the people, since the poor of Scottish cities
delight in vile concoctions doled out to them
as genuine spirits, or ' Our celebrated Toddy
Mixture ' at one shilling and ninepence per
bottle. For a long time past the excessive
mortality of Glasgow has occasioned perplexity
and even alarm among philanthropists and
well-to-do citizens, and very praiseworthy have
been the efforts made to lower the frightful
death-rate. It has been in vain, however ; and
recently the local newspapers have been using
severe language towards one sanitary reformer
who professes to have discovered in spirit-
drinking a fountain which stimulates the growth
of hot-beds of fever. Looking at the question
from the temperance rather than from the
teetotal standpoint, I confess to having been


appalled by the figures and conclusions of this
'teetotal child,' as his opponents style the
gentleman referred to. In one part of the city
of Glasgow, where the doomed inhabitants herd
thickly together in close, damp courts, and
where a spirit-shop flourishes for each eight
score people, as many as eleven per cent, of
the inhabitants were stricken by fever in a
single year ! I do not infer that this horrible
state of affairs has its spring solely in drunken-
ness ; but a continuous consumption of raw,
inferior spirit, by an underfed populace, must
be attended by fatal results. Cheap fiery
liquors are poisons which quickly and effec-
tively complete their deadly work, so that to
dispute the ground with the evils arising from
their use does not merely belong to Good
Templars and other teetotal clubs. It is the
legitimate work of the Christian Church in
common, and in few places is this realised so
keenly as in Edinburgh.


In the meantime, the great work of renova-
tion progresses, while we, perhaps, are asking
in perplexity, only relieved by faith, What
shall be done to reclaim such moral wastes
as the Cowgate and the Canongate the fatal
retreats of every ill which oppresses human
nature ? Fanciful descriptions of the ' Special
Commissioner' class serve to amuse, but yield
no substantial fruit. Indeed, 'graphic' exag-
gerations of the misfortunes and miseries
of the indigent and fallen have too often
given offence to the people directly referred to.
Such writing seldom tends towards reforma-
tion. What, then, shall be done to raise
these myriads of our brethren and our sisters
in Edinburgh, to whom the most common-
place requisites of civilisation are unknown
luxuries ? First, the localities absolutely re-
quire to be razed to the ground, so that proper
buildings may be erected. Our evangelists
labour under cruel disadvantages when stand-


ing in the presence of a mass of squalor and
disease, which a corps of masons and labourers
could, in a great measure, speedily remove.
Clean dwellings or dwellings which might be
clean at the will of the .inmates are indis-
pensable. Would we could hail the dawn of
those better days which we long to see !
Light, water, and pure air are not so expen-
sive or scarce but that all might enjoy
them. It is almost heart-breaking work to
persons of fine Christian instinct, when they
have to speak of Christ and of moral duties
in dirty rooms opening into dark, loathsome
passages, where the air is tainted by the
refuse which chokes up the corners or even
obstructs the pathway. Eeplacing ancient
rotten buildings by decent houses is, after all,
not a task of superlative difficulty. Such a
work is actually going forward, though more
slowly than the urgency of the case demands.
Private beneficence is doing a little, and city


corporations are doing something also. Accord-
ing to common report, Mr. Kuskin achieved
a noble triumph some years ago under this
head. He purchased a dilapidated pile of
tenements, which a -former landlord had com-
placently relinquished to the reign of moral
disorder and physical disease. On passing
into the possession of their new owner, the
houses were completely renovated, thoroughly
repaired, and made in all respects convenient, or
even attractive. Then a woman blessed with
a knowledge of domestic matters was appointed
overseer as well as rent collector ; and this
matron did her part in teaching such of the
occupants as chose to become pupils something
about cooking, and the science of housewifery
in general. What some have thus done in a
small way, we want to see done on a larger
scale. Not until such works are earnestly
taken in hand, shall we have a ready answer
when confronted with such an appalling enigma


as, What shall be done to diminish the savage
degradation and suffering of places like this
ancient Canongate and historically - renowned
Cowgate ? We can provide an army of mis-
sionaries brave and enterprising ; but why
should the devoted band be ever missing
their mark, wasting moral force, and hazarding
failure, when a corps of sappers and miners
could prepare them a way which would lead
to an easier victory ? Those who will provide
better dwellings for the poor in great cities
can by so doing aid evangelistic work in an
important degree. More than this : we see no
reason why owners of fever-breeding haunts
should not be compelled by law to replace
by creditable habitations those piles of rotten
tenements which disgrace our civilisation, and
in which the moral instincts of the young are
blunted before they can know what religion or
morality means.


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Online LibraryW. S. B. (William Smythe Babcock) MathewsByeways of two cities → online text (page 12 of 12)