Recollections of John Pounds: Feeding the Sick and Poor by Reverend Henry Hawkes
The winter of 1837-8 was unusually severe. The streets were covered with ice for weeks together. Birds of strong wing, accustomed to fly high, and not commonly seen in the neighbourhood of towns, were now seen flying low along the streets, in search for food. The hardships and sufferings of the poor were extreme. Great efforts were made to relieve them.
A general meeting of the Borough was called, to consider how they might be most efficiently assisted. The meeting was largely attended. An excellent spirit prevailed through all the proceedings.
It was resolved, to give food, coals, warm clothing, or money, according to the various cases; that, for this purpose, soup kitchens, coal stores, stores for warm clothing, and other means of assisting, should be instituted in various parts of the Borough; that the whole Borough should be canvassed for donations of money; and, to carry out these arrangements, the Borough was divided into Districts, and a Committee appointed for each, to superintend and conduct the work in their own District.
One of the Districts was Portsmouth within the walls. I was requested to act on the Committee appointed for it; to which I very cordially acceded. Our Committee promptly met, and were thoroughly in earnest, to do the work faithfully.
That they might know how to give relief the most judiciously, they determined to visit the poor in their own homes, and inquire, as they might deem desirable, into the circumstances of each case. In order to this, they divided the District into Sections; and formed themselves into Groups of three or four, and apportioned one of these Sections to each group, to visit the poor in it, house by house
Standing in St. Mary Street – where Warblington Street branches off from it to the wall and Landport Gate, on the right; and Crown Street to Quay Gate on the left: – that line, crossing St. Mary Street; – with the connecting wall from Quay Gate to Landport Gate, – gives the Section which was apportioned to our Group: – that dense mass of profligacy and degradation, in the midst of which the good John Pounds lived.
I felt a great advantage, that the gentlemen with whom I had to act in our Group, were of long standing in the Borough, highly esteemed and trust#worthy for their sound judgement and good feeling, practically experienced in benevolent works of this kind, and well acquainted with the wretched neighbourhood, into the recesses of which we were now to go.
The morning sun was shining bright, as we began our visits to the suffering poor. It was an intense frost. The air glistened. The first alley that we entered was so narrow, that only one could go along it at a time. Its roof was very low; it was built over all its length. When we had gone in a few steps it was almost dark; and so continued till we came out at the other end. It brought us into a little square court; inclosed with very small houses; or rather – mere shells of houses; – so meagre and slight; – closely packed together on all four sides.
The first door we knocked at, was opened by an old woman; pale and emaciated, feeble and tottering, as in a state of starvation. She seemed to have seen better days. “I would ask you to sit down, gentlemen,” she said with a mild tremulous voice, “If there were chairs for you; but that one in the corner is all I have; if one of you will please to take that. And there’s my bed; for this is my only room to live in. If you will please to sit down upon that.” We thanked her; but said, we would rather see her sit down in her own arm-chair. “Well, gentlemen; if it will please you.”
And she sat down. “You’ve no fire this cold morning.” “No, I’ve had no fire for weeks.” “Is that all the bed-clothing you have?” “Yes. I had more at the beginning of the winter. But when the cold weather came on so severe, I fell ill; and had to pawn some, to keep life in me. And I could not get the things out again; and so they’re lost.” As I glanced round the room, while others were conversing with her, I saw no signs of food; – nothing – to comfort her. All was bare, and utterly poverty-stricken.
“Well, you shall soon hear from us again; and for your good;” one of them said; and gave her a shilling to buy some food with. “Thank you, gentlemen! The Lord bless you for your goodness. This will buy me a breakfast, and some dinner; and something for tomorrow, and next day. I’ve had nothing to eat yet today; and I’d only a bit of bread to eat yesterday. But – the Lord be thanked for his goodness in sending you. You’ll find others worse off than I am.”
The next house we went to, we heard heart-rending sounds within, before we knocked at the door. A woman opened it, like a fury; – haggard, – passionate, raving. There was a man, that we supposed was her husband: – his face was bleeding, and quivering with rage. They had been quarrelling. What little money they had, they had spent the night before – at the ale-house; and came back to their empty room, – desperate: – no fire: – no candle: – nothing to eat: – and they fell to quarrelling, in their desperation.
We asked them, gently and kindly: – Whether a good basin of hot soup would not be better, – than that maddening drink? They both looked ashamed – at the thought. We told them, we would give them – some good hot soup, – every day: – to comfort them: – if they liked to come for it: – and they should have nothing to pay for it. They thanked us; and said they would come for it. And one or other of them came – regularly – to our soup- kitchen, every day, – for weeks after; – and gratefully received it, and carried it home, to eat it together.
We gave them coals, and wood for fuel; and they had every day a comfortable fire. The clothes they had on when first we came to them, were very scanty, dirty, and in rags. We gave them some good warm clothing. They were very grateful for it, and made good use of it; and they seemed to feel more self- respect. And we had the happiness, before the end of the winter, to see them reformed characters; habitually steady and sober, peaceable and well- conducted.
So we went into other dark alleys; leading us into other back courts; scenes of want and suffering; too commonly – haunts of vice and infamy. Some were swarming with children; – many – dirty, ragged, squalid. Now and then, we came to a court – silent as death; with no sign of life, – till we entered some wretched abode: – where we found – life – but as a misery: – or a disgrace.
It was our duty – to visit Prospect Row: – one of the most disreputable and abandoned places in this garrison town. We had to take it, not only house by house, and floor by floor, but room by room. Children were scattered about; – chiefly outside; – most wretched to look at; dirty, neglected; with little clothing, and that little in rags; starving for want of food.
We found the rooms very small; commonly, almost empty; with next to no furniture; and that little, of the most meagre sort: – the walls – bare and dirty; every thing – dirty; – the windows – cracked and broken, – patched up with paper, or rags stuffed through to keep out the weather: – here and there, – unhappy beings, – reckless, – fallen – fallen: – loathing life: – no appearance of self respect in any: – save, perhaps, – some poor creature, – sorrowing alone; – deserted; – hopeless.
“There’s the old cobbler!” one of the Group suddenly said, as we came out of the last house in Prospect Row. “Without hat or coat, as usual!” said another. “What’s frost or cold to him?” said the third, in a hearty tone of admiration: – “his heart’s warm enough!” I was the only one silent: – not from any want of most deep interest in the good old man. He was coming in through the Quay Gate, and was leading a starved-looking little lad kindly by the hand. He crossed direct into Crown Street; the shortest way to his shop.
“And these are the scenes of infamy and wretchedness,” I seemed to say to myself, “that the good old man is continually coming into, to pick up the little lost ones, that nobody cares for, and win them into his little shop, and feed them, and warm them; endearing them to him; and training them up, with all a parent’s care, and patience, and love, to be good men and women! happy and respected! – blessings to society!”
In the midst of that general beneficence, so largely exerted, and long continued, in such various ways, throughout the Borough, during that long and inclement winter; – by none was relief and comfort carried with more self-devoting assiduity and perseverance to poor sufferers, than by the good old cobbler John Pounds.
Not that he was on any Committee. Such a thought – as John Pounds being on a Committee, would be altogether laughable to those who knew him; as utterly out of character. He never combined with any one, in his work of beneficence. He never seemed to seek counsel of any one, as to the best plans – for carrying on his usefulness. He did his own work, in his own way. He had no elaborate systematic arrangements to devise, for effecting his purpose. He simply acted from his own good heart. He saw his poor neighbours suffering, and in want; and he was all earnestness to help and comfort them.
It was no new thing for him, to be going about all parts of the day, early and late, and often in the night, carrying nice things, of his own preparing, to poor sufferers. But now – there was more for him to do; there were more in want, this inclement season; many about him – more severely suffering; and he was seen going out oftener, and striding along with quicker alacrity; carrying about his basins of hot broth, and his boiled potatoes, and plates of sprats – of his own cooking; and loaves of bread, and other good nourishing things; not thinking of himself; altogether bent on helping others; – happy in the work! Driving wind, keen biting frost, bitter snow-storms, cutting sleet; all the same to him. Nothing stopped him in his rounds of beneficence.
Long before the day-break gun fired: – in the deep darkness, – the early passer-by – might see him, – through his little window, – busy at his fire, – cooking hot breakfasts. And, soon, he would be going with them, – through the dark, – into back courts, – carrying them to the bed-sides of poor suffers.
Notwithstanding all this large increase to his care and exertions, – demanding so much more of his time – all day long, – and often – far into the night; continued, without diminution, as long as the hardships of this long, very trying winter lasted; – and – much longer – to him; – because of the painfully enduring consequences – long after afflicting his poor neighbours: – amid all these, – the good old man was as constant to his school as ever. There was no lessening of his attentions to his crowd of little scholars.
His school went on with the same life and interest. Every morning, between eight and nine o’clock, – or earlier; – he was seen seated on his bench, – at his little tumble- down window, – cobbling; ready to welcome the first-comers; and with as much briskness and pleasantry, as if he had nothing to do – more than usual; and as if he had enjoyed a good long night’s rest. But his scholars saw him more busy – cooking; and he would oftener hear them say their lessons while he was doing something at the fire. But still, – in the midst of all he was so busy doing, – he would talk to them just the same, – in his own pleasant instructive way.
When, at times, something was cooking that did not require his close attention, he would turn round and look over their sums, and set them more work. Some of them he would send out with something nice and comforting, that he had just got ready, to some poor afflicted neighbour. Some he would, now and then, call to help him in cooking; first one, and then another; as a reward for their good conduct; and would hand out the same privilege to others, as an inducement for them to deserve it.
And all aspired to it. For it was considered a high honour, to be allowed to help Mr. Pounds. Often, in the midst of school hours, he suddenly went out himself, with something he had cooked, and would leave the school in the care of one of the older scholars; and bid the rest – “behave themselves” – while he was away. And the report of their conduct was generally satisfactory – when he came back.