Dora B. Montefiore Justice 1908

Capitalism’s Refuse Heap

Source: Justice, p.4, 5 September 1908;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Not far from my home in Hammersmith, through a network of alley-ways, oil-mills, and beer-shops, reeking with the smear and stink of industrialism, as they skirt and contaminate that part of mighty Father Thames, one chances on the Waterworks that supply much of London with one of the necessaries of life. Ceaselessly, night and day, the great piston-rods go back and forth, and the well-oiled wheels rotate with resistless monotony, pumping the water for which Londoners pay in golden coin of the realm. For enterprising industrialism finds profit in supplying the “cup of cold water,” without which human life would perish. The same enterprising commercial spirit would, if it could, bottle up and measure out on strictly commercial lines the warm, life-giving rays of the dear Sun God. But because he is a God, he refuses to be subject to the peddling propensities of “the damned shopkeeper,” and he continues to shine triumphantly on the rich and the poor, on the righteous and the unrighteous.

But it is of one obscure department of this up-to-date commercial enterprise of the Water Board that I have to write – its cinder refuse-heap .... The great engines that work and pump night and day, require feeding with black coal dug from the bowels of the earth; and while their chimneys belch forth, after each fresh meal, trails of black and sulphurous smoke, men rake away the useless slag and cinders, and throw them, still smoking, on the refuse-heap. Day by day this hot reeking heap is renewed, and day by day it disappears, but the Board has not the expense and trouble of removing it! For over the cinder refuse-heap of the wisely organised commercial enterprise swarms eagerly the human refuse-heap of capitalism! The little children of the unskilled workers, and of the starving unemployed, spend many grimy hours of their childhood, raking over those slag and cinder-heaps for “treasures” of half-charred coal and cinder, wherewith mother may keep the fire burning and the kettle boiling in the shelter they call “home.” Yes, nothing is wasted under capitalism; not even cinder refuse-heaps, or grimy, degraded little children! With shrill, uncanny cries and uncouth, gestures, these ragged, predestined “lapsed and lost” of our hideous civilisation scramble for smoking cinders, and snaich with wolf-like action at lumps of hot slag, fighting, jostling, swearing at the smaller fry, who are as yet only beginning the life-lesson under organised capitalism, of living by their wits. Saucepan, soap-box, perambulator and ragged-sacks are filled by the first batch of youngsters, and are dragged, pushed and trundled triumphantly home through the greasy alley-ways, and the reeking slums, whilst a fresh batch of grimy rakers swoops down on the refuse-heap and recommences noisy juvenile operations

I stand and watch, and picture to myself the home-coming of the human and the commercial refuse-heap! For I know them, those “homes!” The old riverside tenement houses harbouring half-a-dozen families, and bringing in such fat rents to the borough councillors and their bosom friends who own the property! I know the rotting floors, the ricketty stairs, the suffocating “one-roomed homes,” where capitalism’s refuse-heap lives. I have heard on dark, cold, winter mornings, through my open bedroom window the hurrying, tiny feet, and the (clatter of the trundled soap-boxes, as the little, half-clothed cinder-heap scrapers returned “home,” through the fog and gloom of breaking dawn, with the wherewithal to make a fire. I have caught the whimper of the hungry tiny tots, unable to keep up with the hurrying elder children, and have winced all heard the tough blasphemy of the ten or twelve-year-old boy or girl, imitating, as I knew, but too faithfully the daily language and exhortation of its parents. What scenes of English child life; what an atmosphere of child training in wealthy twentieth-century England! What can we hope for from the human refuse-heap but dust and ashes between our teeth?

“But many a million cometh, and shall they be better or worse?” sang William Morris, who dreamed and lived on this very spot his beautiful dream of a “New Order,” among, perhaps, the very same scenes as I have just described.

“It is we must answer and hasten, and open wide the door

For the rich man’s hurrying terror, and the slow-foot hope of the poor.”

Those lines are from “The Day is Coming,” and I know of no more exquisite word-painting in the English language; certainly nothing that could describe more trenchantly and picturesquely the day that I am almost tempted to believe has come. When I see the neglected state-of the children in Hammersmith, Haggerston, Peckham, or any of the industrial centres of London, and watch the apathy in Parliament of most of the Labour members on the subject, I ask myself, “How long will the workers continue to suffer these things?”

If “the slow-foot hope of the poor” will not hasten matters, so that the children of the nation shall be fed, and clothed and taught during school-time, and cared-for, and kept from street temptations and degradations during their holidays, then “the rich man’s hurrying terror” must be used to quicken the process. The door of equal opportunity must be opened wide for all our children, and work and pay must be given to all men and women seeking work and pay. But the voice of the people must demand this justice, the will of the people must force it. At present only one-third of the adult population of the country can make its voice heard through the Parliamentary vote on these subjects; when the other two-thirds are enfranchised, and the motherhood of the nation finds political expression, then, in spite of the threats of the writer in the “Standard” (who assures us that the demands even of voters may be resisted, if the property-owners see fit), we may live to see the time when:

“More than one in a thousand in the days that are yet to come,
Shall have some hope of the morrow, some joy of the ancient home.”