George Simms

George Simms

George Sims, the son of a successful businessman, was born in London in 1847. His mother was the daughter of the Chartist leader, John Dinmore Stevenson. After he retired Stevenson lived with his daughter and George later recalled that "it was my grandfather, the old Chartist, who shaped my early political views".

After being educated at Eastbourne College, Sims went to work for his father who owned a wholesale and export cabinet manufacturing business. Sims had a strong desire to become a writer and in 1872 began writing theatre reviews for two journals, Dark Blue and Woman. Three years later he became a staff writer with Fun and in 1877 moved to Referee. Sims also wrote a weekly column for the Weekly Dispatch.

Sims also wrote plays. He had a minor success with Crutch and Toothpick in 1879 but it was with The Lights of London that established Sims as a playwright. Other plays written by Sims include Romany Rye, The Member for Slocum and The Harbour Lights.

In the 1880s Sims still retained the radical views of his youth and often wrote poems on social issues for the Referee. These became known as the Dagonet Ballads, the most famous of these being In the Workhouse: Christmas Day. Sims wrote in his memoirs that after it was first published it was "vigorously denounced as a mischievous attempt to set the paupers against their betters".

With his great friend, John Burns, Sims gave lectures on need for social reform. After one of these meetings in Southwark, Sims was approached by Arthur Moss, a local School Board officer. Moss told Sims of the terrible poverty that large numbers of working class people were experiencing in London. Moss offered to take Sims of a tour of the district.

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Gustave Dore, London (1872)

Sims was shocked by what he saw and decided he would try to find a way of bringing this information to the notice of the general public. Sims approached his friend, Gilbert Dalziel, the editor of a new illustrated paper, The Pictorial World. Dalziel agreed to publish a series of articles by Sims on the living conditions of people in London. Illustrated by Frederick Burnard, the articles were later published as a book entitled How the Poor Live (1889). Articles originally published in the Daily News appeared in another volume called Horrible London (1889).

Although Sims was mainly a playwright he continued to write on social issues. A series of articles on child poverty that appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 1909 were eventually published as books: London by Night and Watches of the Night. Sims also wrote for the Daily Mail and the Evening News, newspapers owned by his friend, Lord Northcliffe.

In the last few years of his life Sims worked on his memoirs. His autobiography, My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London was published in 1917. George Sims died in 1922.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book How the Poor Live George Sims described a visit to a family living in London (1889)

I was the other day in a room occupied by a widow women, her daughters of seventeen and sixteen, her sons of fourteen and thirteen, and two younger children. Her wretched apartment was on the street level, and behind it was a common yard of the tenement. For this room, the widow paid four and sixpence a week; the walls were mildewed and steaming with damp; the boards as you trod upon them made the slushing noise of a plant spread across a mud puddle in a brickfield.

Of all the evils arising from this one room system there is perhaps none greater than the utter destruction of innocence in the young. A moment's thought will enable the reader to appreciate the evils of it. But if it is bad in the case of a respectable family, how much more terrible is it when the children are familiarised with actually immorality.

It is my shutting our eyes to evils that we allow them to continue unreformed for so long. I maintain that such cases as these are fit ones for legislative protection. The State should have the power of rescuing its future citizens from such surroundings, and the law which protects young children from practical hurt should also be so framed as to protect them from moral destruction.

It is better that the ratepayers should bear a portion of the burden of new homes for the respectable poor than that they should have to pay twice as much in the long-run for prisons, lunatic asylums and workhouses.

(2) In How the Poor Live George Sims explained why he was a supporter of the Temperance Society (1889)

Drink is the curse of these communities; but how is it to be wondered at? The gin-palaces flourish in the slums, and fortunes are made out of men and women who seldom know where tomorrow's meal is coming from.

Can you wonder that the gaudy gin-palaces, with their light and their glitter, are crowded? Drink is sustenance to those people; drink gives them the Dutch courage necessary to go on living; drink dulls their senses and reduces them to the level of the brutes they must be to live in such places.

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes. A copper or two, often obtained by pawning the last rag that covers the shivering children on the bare floor at home, will buy enough alcohol to send a woman so besotted that the wretchedness, the anguish, the degradation that await her there have lost their grip. The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools' paradise.

It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life's battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers' experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

(3) George Sims, Horrible London (1889)

More than one-fourth of the daily earnings of the citizens of the slums goes over the bars of the public-houses and gin-places. On a Saturday night, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, clothiers, furniture dealers, all the caterers for the wants of the populace, are open till a late hour; there are hundreds of them trading around and about, but the whole lot do not take as much money as three publicans - that is a fact ghastly enough in all conscience. Enter the public-houses, and you will see them crammed. Here are artisans and labourers drinking away the wages that ought to clothe their little ones. Here are the women squandering the money that would purchase food, for the lack of which the children are dying.

The time to see the result of a Saturday night's heavy drinking in a low neighbourhood is after the houses are closed. Then you meet dozens of poor wretches reeling home to their miserable dens; some of them roll across the roadway and fall, cutting themselves till the blood flows. Every penny in some instances has gone in drink.

All honour to the brave temperance workers who have already done so much to diminish the evil. In this district such men are labouring night and day. No one now disputes the good which temperance can accomplish. It will strengthen the hands of those who are trying to wean the thriftless poor from drink, if we give the people better homes and enforce sanitary laws.

The temperance advocates have accomplished much - they will accomplish more; but if they wish to check the evil in its hotbed, they must be among the strongest advocates of the proper housing of the poor. To say, because a certain proportion of the poor are drunkards, it is useless to try and improve the social conditions of the masses, is like refusing to send the lifeboat to a sinking ship because half the crew are already known to be drowned.

(4) George Sims, How the Poor Live (1889)

The man in his shirt-sleeves receives us courteously. His wife apologizes for the wretched condition of the room. both of them speak with that unmistakable timbre of voice which betokens a smattering of education. In the corner of the room is a heap of rags. That is the bed. there are two children, a boy and a girl, sitting on a bare hearth, and gazing into the fast-dying embers of a wretched fire. Furniture the room has absolutely none, but a stool roughly constructed of three pieces of unplanned wood nailed together.

Four shillings a week is the rent of the cellar below the pie-shop; the foul smell arises from the gradual decay of the basement, and the utter neglect of all sanitary precautions. The man (who has only one arm) is out of work this week, he tells us, but he is promised a job next. To tide over till then is a work of some difficulty, but the 'sticks' and the 'wardrobe' of the family have paid the rent up to now. As to meals - well, they ain't got much appetite. The stench in which they live effectively destroys that. In this instance every bad drainage has its advantages, you see.

Before the man lost his arm he was a clerk; without a right hand he is not much good as a penman in a competitive market. So he goes on as a timekeeper in a builder's yard, as a messenger, or as anything by which he can get a few shillings for a living.

The children have not been to school. "Why?" asks the officer who accompanies us. "Because they've no boots, and they are both ill now." The children's boots have gone with the father's coat, and at present it does seem hard to say that the parents must be fined unless the children come barefooted through the sloppy streets to school.

(5) George Sims, How the Poor Live (1889)

Compulsory education is a national benefit. I am one of its stoutest defenders, but it is idle to deny that it is an Act which has gravely increased the burdens of the poor earning precarious livelihoods; and as self-preservation is the first law of nature, there is small wonder that every dodge that craft and cunning can suggest it practised to evade it.

In many cases the payment of the fees is a most serious difficulty. Twopence or a penny a week for each of four children is not much, you may say; but where the difference between the weekly income and the rent is only a couple of shillings or so, I assure you the coppers represent so many meals.

Many of the children who are of school age are of a wage-earning age also, and their enforced 'idleness', as their parents call it, means a very serious blow to the family exchequer. Often these children are the sole bread-winners, and then the position is indeed a hard nut for the kind-hearted official to crack.

(6) George Sims, How the Poor Live (1889)

Space after space has been cleared under the provisions of the Artisans' Dwellings Act. Space after space has been cleared under the provisions of this Act, thousands upon thousands of families have been rendered homeless by the demolition of whole acres of the slums where they hid their heads, and in scores of instances the work of improvement has stopped with the pulling down. To this day the cleared spaces stand empty - a cemetery for cats, a last resting-place for worn-out boots and tea-kettles. The consequence of this is, that the hardships of the displaced families have been increased a hundredfold. So limited is now the accommodation for the class whose wage-earning power is of the smallest, that in the few quarters left open to them rents have gone up 100 per cent in five years.

(7) George Sims, How the Poor Live (1889)

M.P.'s do not drive through Whitechapel, nor do they take their constitutional in the back slums of Westminster and Drury Lane. What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve after, and the conservative spirit born and bred in Englishmen makes them loath to start a crusade against any system of wrong until its victims have begun to start a crusade of their own - to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square, and to hold meetings in Hyde Park. There is a disposition in this country not to know that a dog is hungry till it growls, and it is only when it goes from growling to snarling, and from snarling to sniffing viciously in the vicinity of somebody's leg, that the somebody thinks it time to send out a flag of truce in the shape of a bone.

To leave the world a little better than he found it is the best aim a man can have in life, and no labour earns so sweet and so lasting a reward as that which has for its object the happiness of others.

How long the scandal which disgraces the age shall continue depends greatly, therefore, good reader, upon your individual exertions. If I have enlisted your sympathy, pass from a recruit to a good soldier of the cause, and help with all your will and all your strength to make so sad a story as this impossible when in future years abler pens than mine shall perhaps once again attempt to tell you.

(8) George Sims, My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London (1917)

My grandfather, John Dinmore Stevenson, was one of the leaders of the Chartist movement. In 1848 the Chartists made the strategic mistake of threatening to use force in order to obtain their demands. My grandfather went off to join the Chartists in the great demonstration on Kennington Common, and to act as one of the leaders in the threatened advance upon Westminster, and my father was at the same time sworn in as a special constable, and armed with his staff of office went forth to protect London from my grandfather.

The Kennington Common affair was a terrible fiasco. The heavens, I believe, wept over it so profusely that the ardour of the rebels was damped in the deluge. My grandfather came back to our house soaked to the skin, changed his clothes, and sat down to tea with the special constable. And there was peace between them.

(9) George Sims, My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London (1917)

The journalistic campaigns of which I am proudest are those I have been permitted to undertake on behalf of the children and the youth of the vast and mighty city in which I was born. I have always received the generous assistance of my friends the officers and officials of the Metropolitan Police.

When I was writing The Cry of the Children I received the greatest assistance from the police, who were as keenly interested as I was in a campaign that had for its object the safeguarding of infant life. It was in connection with this investigation that for many weeks I walked about London in every direction through the long night and often far into the dawn, and was able to publish facts with regard to the infamous White Slave traffic that was carried on by foreigners - principally Germans.

As a journalist I followed the Jack the Ripper crimes at close quarters. I had a personal interest in the matter, for my portrait, which appeared outside the cover of a sixpenny edition of my Social Kaleidoscope, was taken to Scotland Yard by a coffee-stall keeper (who had a conversation with Jack the Ripper on the night of the double murder) as the likeness of the assassin. But it was quite a pardonable mistake. The redoubtable Ripper was not unlike me as I was at that time.