"Along the dense-packed cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways - every leaf a miracle."
A kindly K.C. of my acquaintance is always telling us we ought to provide pianos for the poor. "So elevating" - this is his argument. Mine is, that pianos want too much practising - poor people have no time for it; much better give them window-boxes and a spade. A taste for gardening raises the most uneducated, and the mixed elements of chance and skill secure perennial freshness, giving a zest to the pursuit that makes it like the best kind of game.
Mrs. Free, of St. Cuthbert's Lodge, Millwall, is doing an excellent work in encouraging a love of flowers among her poor. About four years ago, through her efforts, a Window-box Society was started. Members (there are now about seventy) pay twopence annually, and in return receive gifts in kind of bulbs and plants. Prizes are awarded for the best display of flowers. Few families, alas! possess the smallest bit of garden ground, and many have no space for a window-box, but must make the best of a few plants indoors, on a table as near the light as possible. This arrangement, often as I see it, never fails to give a double pang. The first is for the owners, and the second for the plants, that, although taking up more room than ought to be allowed them, are themselves starving for want of air and light.
Last summer, travelling by railway in the heart of London, a poorish-looking, but respectable man entered our carriage, carrying a basket of really beautiful flowers. He had grown them all himself, in a narrow little plot of ground where every single flower was a personal acquaintance. His Lilies were as fragrant as if from a cottage garden in the country. The Madonna-Lily always does grow well for poor people, as we have noticed in many a country garden.
Many good-hearted people have tried to bring the pleasure of plants and gardens to the City poor. Many of the schemes set out are quite Utopian. We cannot build cities after a plan, they grow, but individual enterprise may do much. I had enjoyed Mr. Cadbury's well-made chocolate for many a year, before I found out a very good, and to me quite new reason for liking it. For forty years the good man had watched the class of people who worked for him in Birmingham, and came to the conclusion that the only practical way of raising them up from the degradation of their surroundings was to bring the factory-worker out on to the land, and give him a piece of garden, in which he could enjoy that most delightful of all recreations - the coming in touch with Nature on the soil. So he withdrew his great cocoa manufactory from the town, and established it in the pretty village of Bournville. The move was a great success.
Town board schools in some places are doing what they can to give their scholars practical instruction in Nature knowledge. In cities this is very difficult. Seeds do not germinate well in pots indoors. A school garden, however small, is worth anything; results are so much more satisfactory. The boys' garden at Crook's Place Board School, Norwich, is an example of what may be done in a town. The enclosure measures 50 yards by 20, and was formerly an ugly and uninviting corner of the Chapel Field. Builders' rubbish has been cleared away, and replaced by good soil. Friends have sent seeds and bulbs and plants; stones have been gathered for a rock-garden, the boys work with enthusiasm, and the Norwich school-garden in summer is as bright a spot as one could see.
A Poor Man's Window-Box At Millwall
The young gardeners are instructed for an hour a day three times a week, and show great aptitude in learning. What a pleasant change from books and slates, and how educating in the best sense of the word! No occupation brings to light the better qualities of the mind so much as gardening, even if it is on ever so small a scale. Patience, forethought, sympathy, and tenderness all belong to the gardener - they must do so or his work will be a failure.
It has often struck me that country board schools are not doing the good they might, in the way of influencing their scholars to love the land and take an interest in it. Children are very happy in their board schools. They hurry away as early in the morning as possible, from comfortless stuffy cottages to the well-warmed, well-aired school-room, where they find the joys of emulation and intelligent companionship. In the afternoon it is the same, with intervals for football or games. What time is left to help with work in their own little garden-patches? These lie neglected, while vegetables and garden-produce are purchased by mother from the travelling market-cart, dearer and less fresh than if homegrown. When the boys come home they pore over a borrowed book, or practice sums and easy drawing. Every one of them "means to go to London," and live by his brains, not at all by his hands; and he is no more at home with a spade or a. pitchfork than if he came out of a London slum. There must be something wrong about this, and the something could very easily be remedied.
At the risk of being digressive, I cannot help saying that I am afraid that Germany is ahead of us in the matter of school-gardens. The clever educationists of the Fatherland have found out that book-work, valuable as it is and dear to the heart of a schoolmaster, is barren and unproductive while divorced from the labour of the hands. Garden-schools are established up and down the country, with courses of instruction ; elementary village-schools are provided with educational garden-ground, and even town schools have their garden-plots. As usual, these good and useful efforts are most successful where personal practical influence is brought to bear on them.
With regard to supplying the very poor of London and other towns with plants for their little yards and gardens and window-boxes, I have often thought how easily this could be done if owners of large or even moderate-sized gardens did not mind the little trouble of giving to them of their abundance. We all know how hardy things come up of themselves, and are thrown away as weeds by the gardener unless we prevent it. Forget-me-nots among the Cabbages, Violets under the Gooseberry bushes, Creeping-Jenny, Foxgloves and Evening-Primroses wherever they can find a footing. Why not at every change of season send off hampers and baskets to those who would find priceless treasure in our rubbish? Better with them than on the burn-heap.
Londoners are surprisingly clever in cultivating flowers. A poor woman in the City had a small plant given her, and was not very sure what it was, but put it in a sunny place on a parapet outside her garret window. It grew six feet high, and turned out to be a Sunflower! Eventually the best blossom was presented as a contribution to the harvest decorations at a neighbouring church.
Miss Jekyll, in Home and Garden, tells the prettiest story I know of plants given to the poor. A factory lad in one of the great northern manufacturing towns had advertised in a mechanical paper that he wanted a tiny garden in a window-box; he knew nothing - would somebody help him with advice? That some one was Gertrude Jekyll. Little plants of mossy and silvery Saxifrages and a few small bulbs were sent him, also some stones, for this was to be a rock-garden. It had two hills of different heights, with rocky tops, and a longish valley, with a sunny and a shady side, all in a box that measured three feet by ten inches!
A poor man's house front in Millwall
Imagine the delight of the factory child when he saw the milk-white of the modest Snowdrop and the brilliant blue of the early Squill as they came up, jewel bright, in the grey, soot-laden atmosphere of the smoky town! The boy's happy letters showed that, in his childish way, he shared the rapture of the poet.
"The simplest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."