THE HOLBORN EVICTIONS.
THE preliminary clearing of the ground for the bridge about to be built across the Holborn Valley gave the Cor poration of London the other day a noble " opportunity of virtue," and it is instructive to notice how that opportunity has been missed. The construction of the bridge is one of the most urgently needed of metropolitan improvements, and not the least of the incidental advantages of such a work will be the complete renovation of one of the most unsightly, squalid, and noisome districts in London. But every reform has its victims, and the demolition of the rows of wretched dwelling- houses crowded thickly together along the slope of Holborn Hill, however wholesome and useful a thing it may seem to enthusiasts who would have every street in this great city pure, and clean, and beautiful to the eye, is felt as a cruel calamity by scores of families belonging to the poorest class of - labourers and artizans, who find themselves summarily ejected from the miserable but, for them, convenient homes in which alone they could afford to live, and turned adrift with hardly even a chance of obtaining a place of rest elsewhere. The course of modern changes tends to improve this unfortu- nate class of the population off the face of the earth. The evictions to which they are constantly exposed form in reality a process of extermination. The area within which they must • live in order to get work to do and earn regular wages is very limited, and public companies, boards, and corporations are incessantly and zealously striving to hunt them out of bounds, and let them perish, as it were, in a state of outlawry. More- over, the class of very small shopkeepers thus improved away, even if they get dwelling-room elsewhere, lose completely' the custom on which their livelihood depends, and to them therefore we owe, not only new habitations, but decent compensation, for having to begin the world again. We are now just discovering that, in our exclusive devotion to cleanliness, we run the risk of forgetting justice, and that the sanitary regulations we are trying to enforce throughout the metropolis amount in some cases to a proscription of the poorest citizens and a denial of their right to exist in the neighbourhood of a Board of Health. The Legis- lature, reasoning like the little French princess who wanted to know why the people did not get cakes when they could get no bread, has made it a law that to secure- the public health the inhabitants of London shall all live in comfortable, well ventilated houses, utterly ignoring- the fact that very many thousands of those inhabitants cart barely make shift to pay the cost of their night's lodging in places of shelter that are somewhat less luxurious than cow- sheds, and that another class lives on its small sales of food and clothing to this first class. Perhaps when we have advanced to- the next stage of sanitary reform, we shall see reasons for con- cluding that the public health must suffer injury unless every citizen has a good coat to his back and eats two full meals a day ; but, if every one is expelled from London who does not- comply with the conditions of the new theory of sanitation, the problem of making the metropolis accommodate its inhabi- tants without inconvenience will soon be solved. It is an act of oppression, we take it, for the State to fix any general standard of living for its subjects, to determine how any- man shall be lodged, or clothed, or fed, unless it is pro- posed to supply the deficiency of income to whoever cannot himself earn the means of living up to that standard. If we will not permit the poor to stay in foul lodgings which they can afford to pay for, we must enable them to live in better lodgings, and pay something for tEe rss WECYgreadden destruction of
local custom causes. This principle, if it be applicable even in cases where the liability of the poor to harsh treatment arises only out of the extreme anxiety of men in authority for what they consider the general welfare, ought to be still more rigidly enforced whenever railway or other companies or corporations, having their private interests alone to serve, convert densely- populated districts into tracts of waste land, or ground covered by streets of well built houses that poor men are quite unable
to inhabit. Parliament was persuaded last session to recog-
nize so far the claim to compensation of such dispossessed occupants, as to empower the Public Works Loan Com- missioners to make advances to public companies for the erection of dwelling-houses for the labouring classes in lieu of the buildings that have been pulled down. But unfortunately it is left optional with companies to make the necessary application for a loan for this purpose ; and now the shameful example set by the Corporation of London in evicting the poor people of Holborn, without caring to take advantage of the facilities afforded them by the Act to provide even temporary shelter and compensation to these outcasts, shows for the thousandth time the folly of legisla- tion which depends for its efficiency on the regard that corporate bodies may be expected to pay to considerations of justice or humanity.
When Mr. Hughes brought forward a Bill to make compen- sation to the labouring and small shopkeeping class compulsory
on the promoters of public improvements, he was met by Lord Stanley with the argument that the persons turned out of their homes by public companies were in general tenants whom the landlords themselves could evict at a week's notice, and that therefore, as such tenants always received fair warning from the companies several weeks before the premises were needed, they were deprived of no privileges by the non-renewal of their leases at the end of that term, and were therefore entitled to no compensation. This answer was accepted as sufficient by the House of Commons, and Mr. Hughes's Bill was with- drawn. But has not the interference of Government, in taking up land for public purposes and clearing away the buildings upon it, so unlooked-for, disturbing, and adverse an effect on the fortunes of the occupants of weekly tenements, as to amount to a virtual breach of their original engagement with the landlords, and therefore give them a grievance for which they may fairly claim redress ? A man who takes a room or a shop by the week knows that in ordinary circumstances he can remain as long as he likes, provided he pays his rent regularly, and that if he gets work or a shop in another part of the town he can usually find quarters and custom which some one else has just vacated, his own place probably being immediately filled up by an immigrant from a third district, so that an indirect ex- change of houses and businesses is always going on, the custo- mary course and extent a which is so well understood that it causes no trouble or confusion to either landlords or tenants. But totally new conditions are introduced whenever a whole block of buildings let in tenements is demolished, and hundreds of persons are left homeless or shopless at once, to compete with one another for such scanty house-room as can still be found in the same neighbourhood. They cannot go away without losing their livelihood altogether; but if they stay, the action of Government (through the public companies), in creating a sudden and overwhelming demand for house-room, while simultaneously limiting the supply, has forced up rents to perhaps double their former amount. This, then, is the case for compensation ; there are rights of labour and huckstering as well as rights of capital ; and if Parlia- ment compel a railway company to pay a landowner full value for the ground it occupies in carrying its line through his estate, it ought also to demand from the company for the poor man the equivalent of the increase of rent which is the result of the progress of the railway works, or of the loss of means he suffers during the time that he is engaged in looking out for a new field of labour. It is agreed on all hands that the best form such compensation or part compen- sation could take would be the erection of new dwelling-houses in place of the buildings which have been marked for destruc- tion ; and it is the obvious duty of the companies which under- take improvements, and which will chiefly profit by their success, to carry out this necessary work.
But we have a superabundance of evidence that no public company, and above all no close corporation representing the vested interests and jealously guarded privileges of the wealthy shopkeeping class, will, except upon compulsion, act
6 otherwise than churlishly towards poor men from whom it has nothing to expect. Exhortations to listen to the calls of duty, pitiful appeals to do, not what is generous and chari- table, but merely what is right, fall upon deaf ears when they are addressed to men who individually are capable of just and benevolent actions, but who in their corporate capacity have a heart as hard as a nether millstone. The unbounded faith of Parliament in the virtues of that local government which has made London, as they say at the Mansion- House dinners, the envy and admiration of the world, could not be better illustrated than by the Act of last session, which imposes an obligation on public bodies towards the poor victims of necessary improvements, but courteously leaves it to their pleasure either to accept or decline the fulfilment of that obligation. The protest of the Holborn outcasts will, we trust, be effectual in converting to a belief in the advantages of a compulsory enactment the last advocates of the principle of letting that much abused phrase, " the liberty of self-government," be made the excuse for deliberate acts of cruelty and oppression. The quiet and or- derly demeanour of the persons who took part in the "demon- stration " in Holborn last week, and the respectful language of their resolutions, prove that they still look with confidence to Parliament to compensate them and their fellow-labourers for the grievous hardships to which they are exposed by the whole- sale destruction of house property in the metropolis. But it is clear that they have a strong and bitter sense of the unfairness with which they have been treated. They cannot but contrast their own summary removal out of the way whenever they seem to delay for a moment the march of im- provement, with the tender consideration for the rights of property which Parliament shows when one Duke complains that the construction of the Thames Embankment will disturb his rest and shut out the prospect from his windows, or when another Duke persists in keeping his town house where it ought not to be, not because he wants it, but apparently for no other possible reason than that it is a pleasure to him to display his power by spoiling the approaches to the greatest public work that has been attempted in London for centuries. If our nobility had the becoming pride and public spirit of the true grand seigneur, they would rejoice to spend a. portion of their magnificent fortunes, derived in so many cases from the increased value of property in great towns, in helping to adorn the capital of their country ; but, far from doing this, they haggle with the Government like so many pedlars, and put the screw on the Metropolitan Board, till by sheer pertinacity they succeed either in defeating projects for the good of London, or in getting more than ample com- pensation for the land and houses that they sell. When there is so great a diversity of treatment for the Duke and the poor man placed in similar circumstances, what becomes of our boast of the equality of all Englishmen before the law ? It is time the higher classes learnt the lesson that nothing will conciliate working men so surely as fair play ; they can bear hardships cheerfully enough, but they chafe angrily against distinctions sanctioned by the Legislature, that seem to them to favour unduly the interests of the rich and powerful, and no amount of subscriptions advertised in the newspapers, no ostentatious display of all the machinery of charitable benevolence, can compensate them for what they resent as an act of simple injustice, and a denial of their equal rights as English citizens with the greatest in the land. The feeling of discontent can in the present case be so easily removed that Parliament may, we are sure, be relied upon at once to provide the obvious remedy.