Can Europe Make It?

Today’s People of the Abyss

Is the book a time capsule from a bygone era from which we can learn ‘how it was’ rather than ‘how it is today’?

Stephen McCloskey
9 May 2016

Homeless man Gerard Kenna begging on Dublin's Grafton Street, on the day Ireland officially exited its recession, 2013.Niall Carson / Press Association. All rights reserved. In the summer of 1902, the great American writer, journalist and social activist Jack London undertook an immersive research project in the coalface of poverty in the East End of London which was subsequently published as The People of the Abyss a year later. 

Fresh from his adventures in the Yukon goldrush that would inspire his classic adventure novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang, London’s immersion coincided with the coronation of a new king, Edward VII. The splendor and decadence of this state occasion only accentuated what he witnessed and experienced as a yawning and terrifying social gulf between the privileged and impoverished.  London’s undertaking - thirty years before Orwell conducted a similar exercise in Down and Out in Paris and London – produced a searing, powerful and, at times, haunting account of raw capital colliding with the vulnerable poor to devastating effect. 

Working from court and press reports and official state data, as well as first-hand observation, he found that one in four adults was destined to die on public charity ‘either in the workhouse, the infirmary or the asylum’. Life expectancy in the East End at the time was 30 years, with 55 percent of children dying before the age of five.

The descent

From the outset, London presented his journey and that of his co-habitants in the East End as a ‘descent’ into a hellish, miserable existence — an abyss — from which there was no reprieve.   The devastating poverty he witnessed had obvious underpinnings: workers paid between one quarter and a half of their weekly income in rent, and the rooms they occupied  were unfit for animals, much less adults and children. London reported that there are 300,000 people divided into families, that lived in one-room tenements and a total of 900,000 lived illegally in an area less than 400 cubic feet. Should the Public Health Act be properly enforced, he suggested, 900,000 people would be served with a ‘notice to quit’. Poor light, sanitation, dampness, vermin, lack of ventilation and personal privacy created environmental squalor that destroyed the moral and physical conditioning of decent hard-working people.

Such was the inadequacy of available housing stock, houses were ‘let and sub-let down to the very rooms, with the working man paying proportionately more for his lodgings than the rich man for his spacious comfort’. This sub-letting reached its ultimate extreme with the leasing of beds in ‘doss houses’ whereby a ‘three relay system’ leased a bed to three workers for eight hours each so that it never ‘grows cold’. But occupiers of rooms and beds were in so many respects the most fortunate of those encountered. London spent a night ‘carrying the banner’ or tramping the streets with no peace to be had in doorways or on benches. The law of the time forbad sleeping rough at night which meant that ‘coppers’ shone lanterns into every nook and cranny to rouse the sleeping homeless. On a wet night the homeless walker — soaked to the bone — was on a rapid road to a broken constitution. When public parks opened in early dawn, the homeless were stretched out on grass, dry or wet, like corpses. 

The workhouse

Respite from the streets was sought in the workhouse or ‘spike’ where, in return for a pint of skilly (oatmeal mixed with hot water) and six ounces of bread, the inmates broke stones and picked oakum; punishments associated with prison life suggesting how poverty was criminalised at the time. In moments of reflection in the spike, the men ‘ascribe their homelessness to foreign immigration, especially of Polish and Russian Jews who take their places at lower wages and establish the sweating system’. The inmates rounded on one man who suggested that the wife and children of the immigrant living on lower wages will be assailed by conditions worse than their own. For his part, London saw the social decay of the East End as the result of gross inequality of wealth; 500 hereditary peers owned one-fifth of England and spent a ‘wasteful luxury’ of 32 percent of national wealth. He also takes aim at appalling working conditions which result in men becoming ‘caricatures of what physical men ought to be’ and children ‘twisted out of all shapeliness and beauty’. He champions working women often left to carry the entire family on a pittance after the ‘thing happens’ — an industrial accident or illness strikes down the husband — and leaves the mother to feed her children and earn what can she can from home. 

Today’s people of the abyss

The question for today’s reader of Jack London’s text is what value can we draw from it in the context of contemporary society? Is the book a time capsule from a bygone era from which we can learn ‘how it was’ rather than ‘how it is today’? In his introduction to a reprint of The People of the Abyss, Iain Sinclair’s introduction sides very much with the latter perspective suggesting that the book demonstrates:

“the fault lines of what we are presently experiencing: empty Babylonian towers of spectacular hubris overshadowing rough sleepers, who must remain invisible under foot, or find themselves banished to hobo camps under motorway spurs, treated to one-way tickets to dying seaside resorts”. 

Yes, undoubtedly, the century that has lapsed since the book’s first publication has brought levels of unanticipated material and technological advancement and, yet, so-called ‘developed’ societies remain scarred by serious levels of inequality. In my home city of Belfast, five homeless people have died in a three month period (January to March 2016), most recently Catherine Kenny, a 32 year old woman with addiction problems. Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), a Belfast-based human rights organisation, found that from October 2014 – October 2015 a total of 21,386 benefit claimants were sanctioned; meaning that their benefits were withdrawn under a new more stringent and often arbitrary welfare system enforced by private sector companies. 

The withdrawal of one benefit can mean the loss of all welfare assistance, including housing benefit, which in turn means claimants are sometimes forced onto the streets. In a society already scarred by poverty and the legacy of conflict, the Trussell Trust has found a 48 percent rise in the use of foodbanks in the last financial year with most users on low incomes rather than benefits.  A combination of depressed wages and rising prices has forced many of the working poor to seek help.

In the south of Ireland, 3,885 adults were living in emergency accommodation at the end of January 2016 such is the lack of affordable housing to rent. This total included 884 families, of which 577 were single parent families. This problem is compounded by the recent hospitality extended to vulture funds in Ireland which are buying up housing loans from banks and serving tenants with notices to quit. The Capuchin Day Centre for the homeless in Dublin feeds around 500 people a day and provides 2,000 food parcels a week to families in need reflecting the growing homelessness and poverty crisis in the south of Ireland amid political claims of economic recovery. And in England, the homeless charity Crisis has found that 275,000 people approached their local authority in 2015 for ‘homelessness assistance’ and, in London alone, ‘7,581 slept rough at some point in 2014-15, a 16 percent rise on the previous year’.

While the levels of deprivation today in terms of life expectancy, the condition of housing and the working environment have greatly improved from the days of the ‘abyss’, many of the issues tackled by Jack London’s book persist. We still have gross inequality, high levels of poverty among the working poor, limited social mobility and job insecurity through measures such as zero hour contracts.  And globally, Oxfam (2016) has reported that 62 individuals own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population so while we have travelled far in terms of development indices over the past century, we appear to have learned little about wealth redistribution.

The revelations of the Panama Papers which showed wealthy individuals and corporations using offshore accounts to avoid tax on income has angered the public at a time of austerity, cuts to public services and welfare, and increasing homelessness and vulnerability among the working poor and those on benefits. The reprinting of The People of the Abyss is a timely warning from history that social fractures based on economic inequalities have not been healed and continue to widen to the detriment of us all.  As Rosita Sweetman (2016) said of the book:


People of the Abyss shows how far we have come, but also the dangers of a new abyss yawning as global capitalism dumps unions and enforces zero-hour contracts, and the global arms industry’s bombs drive millions from their homes.”

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