A Poet of the People

How many people know that there really was a poem—and a mighty serious one, too—about Christmas Day in the workhouse ? Its author was George R. Sims. In the year when a king had the first appendix operation, when Phil May cashed his sketches for a fiver a time and Bernard Shaw was a St. Pancras Borough Councillor, he was the most popular Sunday journalist in England.

Sims had a page to himself every week in the Referee. Each of the Referee’s contributors carried the name of a knight of the Round Table: the editor was “Pendragon,” and Sims was “Dagonet”—the name of King Arthur’s jester. His page was called “Mustard and Cress’’; his touch was sure and his influence tremendous.

Playwright, critic, gossip-writer, novelist, poet, business man and reformer—Sims was all of these. His life in the public eye began in 1874, when he was twenty-seven. He joined the Referee at its inception in 1877; he wrote to the Daily News about the housing of the London poor, and made a sensation with “How the Poor Live.” He could—and did popularize places, commodities and slogans. The first popular hair restorer, “Tatcho” (the word was Romany for “genuine”), owed its fame to him.

By 1900, Sim’s name was a byword. He employed two secretaries and lived in a luxurious house facing Regents Park—his readers knew it as “Opposite-the-Ducks.” The house had an ‘“Arabian Nights” salon, a magnificent library where he wrote “Living London” and a “comic-opera” room where famous performers entertained Sims and his friends. He had a bulldog named Barney Barnato and a housekeeper whose malapropisms were—rather unkindly, one feels—recorded in “Mustard and Cress.”

The “Dagonet Ballads” first appeared in the Referee, and were quickly reprinted in book form. Sims was not a great poet, nor even a good one. He wrote with the unctuous matiness that is called “the common touch”—a sure winner, as Wilfred Pickles’ fans will tell you. Just as all rich people were blackhearted to some of the old radicals, all poor people were altruistic and good in the eyes of Sims the poet. He sentimentalized uninhibitedly over them—women and children first, of course; and what gave the Dagonet ballads their tremendous popularity was that Sims really meant it all.

He had a genuine and deep sympathy for the poor. His stubby, aggressive figure was well-known in Deptford and the Borough. When his successful play ‘“The Lights o’ London” was shown, a crowd of real costermongers and barrow boys brought the street scenes to life. He was on terms of friendship with them; their children were taken for wonderful outings by Sims and his wife. And his verse, with all its cliches and gaucheries and its horrible sentimentality, was illuminated by flashes of real understanding of what it meant to be poor.

“In the Workhouse” was Sims’s masterpiece. It is melodramatic and tear-jerking, but through it there runs a vein of knowing, trenchant irony:

“It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight:
For with clean-washed hands and faces
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables
For this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies.
Although the wind is east.
Have come in their furs and wrappers
To watch their charges feast:
To smile and be condescending.
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet

They’ve paid for—with the rates.”

And the incredulous indignation when a militant pauper “declines the vulture’s feast”:

“The guardians gazed in horror.
The master’s face went white:
Did a pauper refuse their pudding?
Could their ears believe aright ?
Then the ladies clutched their husbands.
Thinking the man would die.
Struck by a bolt, or something.
From the outraged One on high.”

So shrewdly is charity characterized, in all its proverbial coldness, that one would assume Sims to have known too much to indulge in it himself. One would be wrong. He was the mainspring of his paper’s “Poor Children’s Winter Dinner Fund”; he, too,

“Put pudding on pauper plates.”

At the height of his popularity—all his life, in fact—Sims campaigned vigorously for reforms which would improve the living conditions of the poor. He was never poor himself; he came from a comfortable home and finished his schooling on the continent. Because of his influence he was offered several Parliamentary candidatures, but never accepted.

Many of the problems with which Sims was concerned are not so apparent nowadays. Less is heard about the workhouse, because it is called by another name and not so many people go to it (they draw outdoor relief instead). The exploitation of young children in industry has practically ceased. Drunkenness and street fights are no longer familiar parts of the social scene. And it is easy to overlook that fifty or sixty years ago some courage was required to agitate for the world to he changed even a little. While Sims was pressing for better sanitation and housing, a noble earl was pronouncing: ” . . . Experience has unfortunately shown that with no class is sanitary reform so unpopular as with the wage class.” Another contributor to The Nineteenth Century observed: “Had people taken the trouble to learn what kind of persons they were going to better, it is possible that some of our largest institutions would not have been started, and certainly no one would have been surprised at the number of failures that sadden the heart of a conscientious committee.” A Socialist was a ruffian in a red tie to most people then.

One of Sims’s favourite themes was the upper-class marriage market. With the same hand that painted a heart-rending picture of the working-class “fallen woman,” he pointed accusingly at the society betrothal. Plenty has been written on that subject, but nothing more forthright than Dagonet’s “Two Women”:

“She is crowned with the world’s fresh roses.
no tongue has a word of blame:
But the woman who falls from hunger is a thing too foul to name.
She is blessed who barters her honour just for a prince’s smile;
The vice of the Court is charming, and the vice of the alley vile.
So, world, shall it be for ever—this hunting the street girl down.
While you honour the titled Phryne, and hold her in great renown:
But when, at the great uprising, they meet for the Judgement Day.
I’d rather be that drowned harlot than the beautiful Countess May.”

Sims never wanted to lead working people, nor to teach them: he wanted and tried to make things better for them. He “meant well,” to use a well-thumbed phrase; he “did a lot of good,” to use another. Many good things have been done for the working class by reformers—and how little has the life of the working class changed, in spite of it all. Housing has improved, and is still bad; in the industrial areas people still live in brick hutches that were flung up over a century ago. Working hours are shorter, factory conditions are better, and there are a thousand and one new strains and anxieties. More material comforts and better amenities are everywhere, and there are more frustrated and unsatisfied people than ever before.

It is a pity that most reformers never realise the implications of their good intentions. The person who does something for the poor—children’s dinners, free boots and so on—has accepted that they shall go on being poor, and is merely trying to make it a little more tolerable to them. In all Sims’s righteous indignation there is no suggestion that he thought the poor could be abolished altogether, and it probably never occurred to him. His solution was benevolence, just as it was Dickens’s; if all the employers and the guardians and the landlords were transformed like Scrooge into jolly, open-handed philanthropists, the world would be a fine place.

It is not people who are reformed, however (unless one believes the Salvation Army); it is the social system. Each reform is a patch on the system’s fabric —and not, as some people suppose, a nail in its coffin. That is why the thousands of large and small reforms cannot really change things very much—they leave the system unimpaired and even refurbished a little. Benevolence is one thing, the abolition of poverty another. The best of social reforms does not, and cannot, overturn the factor that gives some people low wages and others high profits, any more than it is able to control or predict economic crises.

Real improvement in living means creating the right conditions—and before that, doing away with the wrong ones. The Socialist’s unvarying answer to Reformers sounds unpalatable and even hard-hearted, but it is true. Either capitalism is abolished or it remains; and while it remains, the perennial difficulties of working-class life will be there too.

Let us, then, raise our hats a little to Dagonet; he tried to know the lives of the people and to be their poet. And let us replace them with a sigh, for him and for all the other good-natured, good-meaning people who have thought, and think still, that pails can drain a river.


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