Could you survive in a Victorian slum, dodging disease, starvation, overcrowding, sewage-infused drinking water, poverty and crime?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, rural dwellers migrated to London in their droves, in search of employment in the newly industrialised city and a better quality of life. Thanks to the population increase, pressure on affordable accommodation grew – and slum housing skyrocketed, hand-in-hand with grinding poverty – particularly in East London.
To take advantage of the rush, landlords divided their houses up into flats and tenements. Unconcerned with maintaining sanitary living conditions or minimising overcrowding (tens of people could occupy a single room in a large house) landlords were only concerned about collecting the rent. And if someone couldn’t pay up, they’d be out…
Out to work
Those who did have employment were usually paid a subsistence wage, and if the work was seasonal or unpredictable, it was a case of surviving in any way possible until the next payday. Women and children would often do tedious, low-paying work such as making matchboxes to scrape together enough for a meagre meal and support the family income.
Victorian families were often large, and children were deemed fit for work from age 7. Even less fortunate children were thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves, their family no longer able to feed them.
It’s unsurprising that many people turned to prostitution and crime to make ends meet.
The danger of doss-houses
Common lodging houses – informally known as doss-houses – cost around 4d a night for the use of a bed. This would often be shared with someone else on a shift pattern, where one man would sleep during the day and another during the night.
There were roughly 1,000 registered common lodging houses at the end of the 19th century – many of which stood on the notoriously poor, dank and dangerous side streets and back alleys of London’s East End.
Jack The Ripper victim, prostitute Mary Ann Nichols – or ‘Polly’ – was forced to leave her lodging house the night she was killed in order to raise the 4d for the rent. She did, in fact raise it three times – but she drank her earnings, and so had to tout her business again, fatally leading her into the hands of the Ripper… A similar situation with missing rent led to Annie Chapman’s eviction and subsequent murder by ‘Jack’.
In fact, all of Jack The Ripper’s victims lived in common lodging houses – in particular the foul, violent and poverty-ridden Flower and Dean Street – a notorious slum area in Spitalfields.
Charles Mowbray, a former soldier, master tailor and later on a working-class orator, spoke out about the soul-destroying slum conditions he was forced to live in after his pay was severely slashed. He noted that, in the East End’s Old Nichol slum, families were crammed into its rotting tenements. In one, a family of eight lived in two tiny rooms – with no beds. Many houses flooded when it rained and, in winter, water jugs would ice over.
Roughly 5,700 people lived on Old Nichol’s streets, where life expectancy was pitifully low in comparison to neighbouring areas. An alarmingly high number of infants died in their sleep when sharing a bed with their family – suffocating when someone rolled onto them in the night. In such cramped conditions, children were often in the same room when their parents and elders had sex, since there was no privacy – and, as such, families regularly saw each other naked.
No more denial
Many rich or well-off Victorians assumed that poverty was caused by sins such as laziness or greed – and even more preferred to pretend that these black, putrid, disease-ridden labyrinths of streets and tenements didn’t even exist.
Luckily, around the second half of the century, a more socially conscious attitude emerged among moral reformers, social investigators and journalists, who argued that slums and other squalid living conditions were caused by practical, social factors such as unemployment and homelessness. One such man was Henry Mayhew. Below is his account of how London’s poor lived…
“Bucket after bucket of filth”
In A Visit To The Cholera District Of Bermondsey (1849) journalist Henry Mayhew reported on how London’s destitute lived, noting a street through which a tidal ditch ran:
“We then journeyed on to London-street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course… As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong, green tea…indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.
“As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.
“And yet, as we stood doubting the fearful statement, we saw a little child, from one of the galleries opposite, lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In each of the balconies that hung over the stream, the self-same tub was to be seen, in which the inhabitants put the mucky liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of filth, pollution and disease. As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil [human excrement] was poured down from the next gallery.”