London’s Underworld

Author: Thomas Holmes

Chapter VI. The Disabled

In this chapter I want to speak of those who suffer from physical disabilities, either from birth, the result of accident, or disease. If this great army of homeless afflicted humanity were made to pass in procession before us, it would, I venture to say, so touch our hearts that we should not want the procession repeated.

Nothing gives us more pleasure than the sight of a number of people who, suffering from some one or other physical deprivation, are being taught some handicraft by which they will be able to earn a modest living.

Probably nothing causes us greater sadness than the sight of deformed and crippled men and women who are utterly unable to render any useful service to the community, and who consequently have to depend upon their wits for a miserable living. It is a very remarkable thing that an accident which deprives a man of a leg, of an arm, or of eyesight, not only deprives him of his living, but also frequently produces a psychological change. And unless some counterbalancing conditions serve to influence in an opposite direction he may become dangerous. It was not without reason that our older novelists made dwarfs and hunchbacks to be inhuman fiends. Neither was it without reason that Dickens, our great student of human nature, made of Quilp a twisted dwarf, and Stagg a blind man his most dangerous characters. Some years ago I was well acquainted with a very decent man, a printer; he had lived for years beyond reproach; he was both a good workman, husband and father. But he lost his right arm, the result of an accident at his work, and his character changed from that day. He became morose, violent and cruel, and obsessed with altogether false ideas. He could not reason as other men, and he became dangerous and explosive. Time after time I have seen him committed to prison, until he became a hopeless prison habitue. My experience has also shown me that physical deprivations are equally likely to lead to sharpened wits and perverted moral sense as to explosive and cruel violence. Probably this is natural, for nature provides some compensation to those who suffer loss.

This is what makes the army of the physically handicapped so dangerous. The disabled must needs live, and their perverted moral sense and sharpened wits enable them to live at the expense of the public.

Very clever, indeed, many of these men are; they know how to provoke pity, and they know how to tell a plausible tale. Many of them can get money without even asking for it. They know full well the perils that environ the man who begs. I am not ashamed to say that I have been frequently duped by such fellows, and have learned by sad experience that my wits cannot cope with theirs, and that my safety lies in hasty retreat when they call upon me, for I have always found that conversation with them leads to my own undoing.

Witness the following. One winter night my eldest son, who lives about a mile away, went out to post a letter at midnight. After dropping his letter in the pillar-box, he was surprised to hear a voice say, "Will you kindly show me the way to Bridlington?" "Bridlington! why, it is more than two hundred miles away." The request made my son gasp, for, as I have said, it was winter and midnight.

The audacity of the request, however, arrested his attention, and that doubtless was the end to be secured. So a conversation followed. The inquirer was a Scotchman about thirty years of age; he wore dark glasses and was decently clad; he had been discharged from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He was a seaman, but owing to a boiler explosion on board he had been treated in the hospital. Now he must walk to Bridlington, where an uncle lived who would give him a home. He produced a letter from his uncle, but he had either lost or torn up the envelope. All this and more he told my son with such candour and sincerity, that he was soon the poorer by half-a-crown. Then, to improve the fellow’s chance of getting to Bridlington, he brought him to me. I was enjoying my beauty sleep when that ill-fated knock aroused me. Donning a warm dressing-gown and slippers, I went down to the front door, and very soon the three of us were shivering round the remains of a fire in my dining-room.

Very lucidly and modestly Angus repeated the above story, not once did he falter or trip. He showed me the letter from his uncle, he pointed out the condition of his eyes and the scars on his face; with some demur he accepted my half-crown, saying that he did not ask for anything, and that all he wanted was to get to Bridlington.

In my pyjamas and dressing-gown I explored the larder and provided him with food, after which my son escorted him to the last tramcar, saw him safely on his way to the Seamen’s Institute with a note to the manager guaranteeing the expense of his bed and board for a few days.

Next day my son visited the Seamen’s Institute, but alas! Angus was not there, he had not been there. Nevertheless the manager knew something of him, for three separate gentlemen had sent Angus to the institute. One had found him in the wilds of Finchley looking for Bridlington! Another had found him pursuing the same quest at Highgate, while still another had come on him, with his dark glasses, bundle and stick, looking for Bridlington on the road to Southgate.

I do not know whether the poor fellow ever arrived at Bridlington, but this I do know, that he has found his way northwards, and that he is now groping and inquiring for Dawlish in Devonshire.

The Manchester Guardian tells us that one silent evening hour poor Angus was discovered in several different places in the vicinity of Manchester. The same paper of the next day’s date stated that eleven out of the twelve who met poor Angus were so overcome by the poignancy of his narrative and the stupendous character of his task, that they promptly gave him financial assistance. I am strongly of the opinion that the twelfth man was entirely without money at the time he met Angus, or I feel that he would have proved no exception to the rule. In my heart I was glad to find that the hard-headed citizens of Manchester are just as kind-hearted and likely to be imposed upon as we are in London.

But Angus has been playing his fame for six years at least, for one gentleman who gave him explicit directions more than five years ago writes to the Manchester Guardian saying, "I am afraid he took a wrong turning."

It is evident that Angus has done fairly well at his business, and yet it would appear that he never asked for a single penny since he first started on his endless search. He always accepts money reluctantly, and I much question whether the police have right to arrest him, or the gulled public any ground to complain.

But if Angus should ever get to his kind uncle at Bridlington, and that respected gentleman should return the five shillings we gave to help his unfortunate nephew, I will promise to be more careful in pressing money upon strangers in future. But whether the money comes to hand or not I have made myself a promise, and it is this: never more to get out of a warm bed on a cold night to open the house and entertain a half-blind man that speaks with a rich Scotch accent.

But how clever it all is! Why, its very audacity ensures its success, and Angus, for aught I know, has many fellow-craftsmen. Certainly if he is alone he must be almost ubiquitous. But Angus and such-like are not to be wondered at, for Nature herself endows all living things with the powers to adapt themselves to circumstances and obtain the means of defence and offence from their conditions. So Nature deals with the human family, in whom the struggle for existence develops varied, powerful and maybe dangerous characteristics.

At present it is nobody’s business to see that the maimed, the halt, the blind are taught and trained to be of some service, and made able in some way to earn a subsistence. Philanthropy, it is true, does something, and also those blessed institutions, the schools for the blind, and training homes for the crippled. I never see such institutions without experiencing great gladness, for I know how much evil they avert. But the great body of the physically afflicted are without the walls and scope of these institutions, consequently tens of thousands of men and women, because of their afflictions, are enabled to prey upon the community with a cunning that other people cannot emulate.

We hear daily of accidents. We learn of men and women losing arms, legs and hands; our hearts are touched for a brief moment, then we remember the particulars no more. The ultimate consequences are unseen, but they are not to be avoided, for every cripple left uncared for may become a criminal of dangerous type.

Their elemental needs and passions still exist, notwithstanding their physical deprivations. They claim the right to eat and drink, they claim the right of perpetuating their kind.

Some day perhaps the community will realise what the exercise of the latter right means. Some day, and Heaven send that day soon, we shall be horrified at the thought that a vast number of unfortunates exist among us who, demanding our pity and our care, are going down to the grave without that care to which their physical disabilities entitle them.

As we look at these unfortunates, feelings of pity, disgust or amusement may be aroused, but one moment’s reflection would convince us that these afflicted homeless creatures manage to exist and extort an expensive living from the community.

I have said that every disabled man is a potential criminal, and that unless he receives some compensation giving him the means of earning honestly his living, he is certain to be a danger or a parasite. This is but natural, for in the first place his physical nature has received a shock, has sustained an outrage, Nature strikes back, and some one has to suffer. The loss of a limb means severed muscles, bones and nerves. Nature never forgets that they ought to be there, but as they are not there she does without them; but none the less she feels for them instinctively, and becomes disappointed and bitter because she is refused the use of them.

Add to this the anxiety, the sufferings the amputated man feels when he is also deprived of his means of livelihood, as well as his limb, and from comfort comes down to penury. Perhaps he has been able hitherto to keep his wife and children with a fair amount of comfort; now he is helpless and has to depend upon them.

He may be of proud spirit, but he has to endure mortification by seeing his wife labour and slave for him. He becomes moody, then passionate, a little drink maddens him, then comes the danger. He does something, then the police are required, and prison awaits him. There he thinks and broods over his wrong, with bitterness and revengeful spirit. Perhaps his wife has been compelled to give evidence against him; he remembers that, he scores it up, and henceforth there is no peace for either of them!

Frequent convictions follow, ultimately the wife has to claim the protection of the law, and gets a separation order on account of his cruelty. Henceforward he is an outcast, his children and friends cast him off, for they are afraid of him. But he lives on, and many have to suffer because he has lost a limb.

We read a great deal about the development of character through suffering, and well I know the purifying effects suffering has upon our race; but it is well sometimes to look at the reverse side, and consider what evil follows in the wake of suffering.

Blind men, the deaf and the dumb and the physically disabled need our pitiful consideration. Some of the sweetest, cleverest, bravest men I know suffer from great physical disabilities, but they have pleasures and compensations, they live useful lives, their compensations have produced light and sweetness, they are not useless in a busy world, they are not mere cumberers of the ground. They were trained for usefulness whilst they were young.

But a far different case is presented with the disabled among the very poor. What chance in life is there for a youth of twenty who loses an arm or leg? He has no friends whose loving care and whose financial means can soften his affliction and keep him in comfort while training for service. Who in this rich, industrial England wants such service as he can render? Very few! and those who do make use of him naturally feel that his service is not worth much.

Numbers of my acquaintances like Angus half lose their sight! Who requires their service? No one! But these men live on, and they mean to live on, and Nature furnishes them with the means by giving them extra cunning. Many of these fellows, poor disabled fellows, inhabit the dark places of the underworld. Let us call them out of their dark places and number them, classify them, note their disabilities!

Truly they came down to the underworld through great afflictions. They form the disabled army of civilisation’s industrial world who have been wounded and crippled in the battle. All sorts of accidents have happened to them: explosions have blinded them, steam has scalded them, buffers have crushed them, coal has buried them, trains have run over them, circular saws have torn them asunder. They are bent and they are twisted, they are terrible to look at; as we gaze at them we are fascinated. March! now see them move! Did you ever see anything like this march of disabled men from the gloom of the underworld?

How they shuffle and drag along; what strange, twisted and jerky movements they have; what sufferings they must endure, and what pain they must have had. All these thoughts come to us as we look at the march of the disabled as they twist and writhe past us.

The procession is endless, for it is continually augmented by men and women from the upperworld, who as conscripts are sent to the army below, because they have sustained injuries in the service of the world above.

So they pass! But the upperworld has not done with them; it does not get rid of its natural obligations so easily. It suffers with them, and pays dearly for its neglect of them. The disabled live on, they will not die to please us, and they extract a pretty expensive living from the world above. The worst of it is that these unfortunates prey also upon those who have least to spare, the respectable poor just above the line. They do not always sit at the gates of the rich asking for crumbs, for the eloquence of their afflictions and the pity of their woes strike home to the hearts and pockets of the industrious poor who have so little to spare. But it is always much easier to rob the poor!

It is our boast that Englishmen love justice, and it is a true boast! But when we read of accidents and of surgical operations, does our imagination lead us to ask: What about the future of the sufferers? Very rarely, I expect.

The fact is, we have got so used to this sight of maimed manhood that it causes us but little anxious thought, though it may cause some feelings of revulsion.

But there is the Employers’ Liability Act! Yes, I admit it, and a blessed Act it is. But the financial consideration given for a lost limb or a ruined body is not a fortune; it soon evaporates, then heigho! for the underworld, for bitterness and craft.

But all accidents do not come within the scope of that Act, not by any means. If a married woman about to become a mother falls or rolls down the stairs, when climbing to her home in the seventh heaven of Block-land, if she sustains long injuries, who compensates her? If the child is born a monstrosity, though not an idiot, who compensates for that? If the poor must be located near the sky, how is it that "lifts" cannot be provided for them? Who can tell the amount of maimed child, middle-aged and elderly life that has resulted from the greasy stairs and dark landings of London dwellings. Industrial life, commercial life and social life take a rare toll of flesh and blood from the poor. For this civilisation makes no provision excepting temporary sustentation in hospitals, workhouses or prisons. Even our prison commissioners tell us that "our prisons are largely filled with the very poor, the ignorant, the feeble, the incapable and the incapacitated."

It would appear that if we can make no other provision for the disabled, we can make them fast in prison for a time. But that time soon passes, and their poor life is again resumed. But the disabled are not the only suffering unfortunates in the netherworld who, needing our pity, receive the tender mercies of prison. For there epileptics abide or roam in all the horror of their lives "oft-times in water and oft-times in the fire," a burden to themselves, a danger to others. Shut out from industrial life and shut out from social life. Refused lodgings here and refused lodgings there. Sometimes anticipating fits, sometimes recovering from fits; sometimes in a semi-conscious state, sometimes in a state of madness. Never knowing what may happen to them, never knowing what they may do to others. Always suffering, always hopeless! Treated as criminals till their deeds are fatal, then certified to be "criminal lunatics." Such is the life of the underworld epileptic. Life, did I call it?— let me withdraw that word; it is the awful, protracted agony of a living death, in which sanity struggles with madness, rending and wounding a poor human frame. Happy are they when they die young! but even epileptics live on and on; but while they live we consign them to the underworld, where their pitiful cry of "Woe! woe!" resounds.

Do not say this is an exaggeration, for it is less than truth, not beyond it. Poe himself, with all his imagination and power, could not do full justice to this matter.

Mendicity societies in their report tell of cunning rascals who impose on the public by simulating "fits"; they tell of the "king of fits," the "soap fits king," and others. They point with some satisfaction to the convictions of these clever rogues, and claim some credit in detecting them.

Their statements are true! But why are they true? Because real epileptics are so common in the underworld, and their sufferings so palpable and striking, that parasites, even though afflicted themselves, nay, because of their own disabilities, can and do simulate the weird sufferings of epileptics. Will mendicity societies, when they tell us about, enumerate for us, and convict for us the hoary impostors, also tell us about and enumerate for us the stricken men and women who are not impostors, and whose fits are unfortunately genuine?

If some society will do this, they will do a great public service; but at present no one does it, so this world of suffering, mystery and danger remains unexplored.

I do not wonder that the ancients thought that epileptics suffered from demoniacal possessions; perhaps they do, perhaps we believe so still. At any rate we deal with them in pretty much the same way as in days of old. The ancients bound them with chains; we are not greatly different—we put them in prison. The ancients did allow their epileptics to live in the tombs, but we allow them no place but prison, unless their friends have money!

But let me end the subject by stating that the non-provision for epileptics is a national disgrace and a national danger. That incarceration of epileptics in prison and their conviction as criminals is unjust and cruel. That it is utterly impossible for philanthropy to restrain, detain and care for epileptics. That the State itself must see to the matter!

But just another word: epileptics marry! Imagine if you can the life of a woman married to an epileptic.

Epileptics have children of a sort! Can you imagine what they are likely to be? You cannot! Well, then, I will tell you. Irresponsible beings, with abnormal passions, but with little sense of truth and honour, with no desire for continuous labour, but possessed of great cunning. The girls probably immoral, the boys feckless and drunken.

We have to pay for our neglect; we have no pity upon epileptics. He and his children have no pity for us!


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Chicago: Thomas Holmes, "Chapter VI. The Disabled," London’s Underworld, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in London’s Underworld (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2023,

MLA: Holmes, Thomas. "Chapter VI. The Disabled." London’s Underworld, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in London’s Underworld, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Holmes, T, 'Chapter VI. The Disabled' in London’s Underworld, trans. . cited in 1920, London’s Underworld, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2023, from