From riches to rags: David Olusoga reveals how Britain’s grand houses descended into Victorian slums

Slums were one of the great scandals of the Victorian age. And, all too often, that scandal was played out in once-elegant townhouses that had fallen to rack and ruin. David Olusoga reveals the dark side of social mobility in the 19th century

Ramshackle homes in a Newcastle slum, c1880

In 1849 a letter arrived at the offices of The Times newspaper. Its authors were a group of poor Londoners who lived on Church Lane and Carrier Street in what was then known as the St Giles Rookery. Their names, 54 of them in all, were listed at the end of the letter. The parish of St Giles today stands under the shadow of the Centre Point tower block, at the eastern end of Oxford Street, and includes the wealthy streets and squares of Bloomsbury. The St Giles of the 1840s was a very different place. Home to thousands of impoverished Londoners, many of them of Irish descent, it was an infamous slum, one of the capital’s dirtiest and most unhealthy districts.

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The letter sent by the slum dwellers to the newspaper editor, written in broken, misspelt, phonetic English, is one of the few documents through which we can hear the voices of the very poorest of our Victorian ancestors speaking directly into the historical record. They describe, in their own words, the appalling conditions in which they were forced to subsist.

Their plaintive appeal began: “Sur, May we beg and beseech your proteckshion and power. We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Wilderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place.”


Listen: David Olusoga delves into the story of Bristol’s past and explains the value of studying history through our own homes, on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Like the millions who today are forced to eke out meagre existences in the slums and favelas of the developing world, the poor of 1840s St Giles well understood the depth of their plight, and were well aware that the absence of basic amenities and elementary sanitation was the cause of their ill health. They rightly concluded that human beings should not be expected to endure such conditions and after going on to express their entirely justifiable fear of a return of “the Colera” (the last epidemic had arrived 10 years earlier; the next was five years away) – they requested that the editor of The Times agree to “let us have our complaints put into your hinfluenshall paper, and make our houses decent for Christions to live in”.

Finally, they asked: “Preaye Sir com and see us, for we are living like piggs, and it aint faire we shoulde be so ill treted. We are your respeckfull servents in Church Lane, Carrier St., and the other corts.”

The poor of 1840s St Giles well understood the depth of their plight

If the slum dwellers of St Giles exhibited any naivety in their letter, it was their seemingly earnest hope that by appealing to the wealthy and the influential, via the pages of a newspaper of record, they might inspire those in positions of power to address their concerns and alleviate their plight.

The slums were one of the great scandals of the Victorian age. In his 1898 book The Wonderful Century, Alfred Russel Wallace, the eminent co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, counted Britain’s slums as being “among the most terrible failures of the century”, a national disgrace that even risked undermining Britain’s claim to regard itself as a great civilisation. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens, a writer whose literary and philanthropic attentions were often directed towards the slums, lamented that in the middle decades of the century “civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together”.

Regency dandies mix with Irish labourers and prostitutes in a gin palace in St Giles, London
Regency dandies mix with Irish labourers and prostitutes in a gin palace in St Giles, London, in an 1821 engraving. By 1849, conditions in the infamous slum were so bad that its residents had written to the editor of ‘The Times’ to beg for help. (Image by Alamy)

Mazes of misery

In London, as in the nation’s other great cities, slums existed in various forms and in multiple places – dismal enclaves of desperation and squalor, both small and large, scattered across the cityscapes. Near what is today King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, for example, stood Agar Town, a maze of narrow, muddy streets lined with shanty houses. As the homes of Agar Town were built on land leased for just 21 years, they were constructed to miserably low standards. Some were even been built by their impoverished inhabitants from whatever materials they were able to procure.

Agar Town was in effect a purpose-built slum. Yet if a modern visitor were able to embark upon a tour of the Victorian slums, what might surprise them most is the size and grandeur of the many slum houses. This feature of the slums, one that was commentated upon by reformers, journalists and so-called ‘social explorers’, had come about because some slums had emerged when middle-class districts of the cities, their streets lined with desirable residences, fell out of fashion and were abandoned by the well-to-do. Frederick Engels, who visited St Giles a few years before the residents of the Rookery sent their letter to The Times, recalled seeing “tall, three or four-storied houses” that were “occupied from cellar to garret, filthy within and without, and their appearance is such that no human being could possibly wish to live in them”.

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Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga to present BBC TWO series, Civilisations.
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Something of this pattern of decline and decay can be seen in the houses featured in the BBC Two series A House Through Time, of which I am the presenter. Series 3, which is set in Bristol and to be broadcast this spring, tells the long history of a large and elegant house in one of that city’s older districts. What this house has in common with the stars of the previous two series 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool and 5 Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle – is that, while it was built as a home for a single wealthy family and their servants, in its later decades it was subdivided and became cheap housing for the poor.

No matter how grand the house, if the district in which it stood went into decline, it could be dragged under

Of the houses featured in the three series of A House Through Time, perhaps only 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool fell far enough down the social scale to be regarded as a true slum property. But all three houses at various moments teetered on the edge of the abyss. Across Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of similarly grand houses and some that were grander still, did become slums dwellings. For, no matter how architecturally elegant or well-appointed a house was, if the district in which it stood declined far enough, it was liable to be dragged under, converted into a tenement or a cheap lodging house and neglected by landlords, who were often absentees.

In 1842, Robert Rawlinson, the great Victorian sanitary reformer, reported that, “in our great sea-ports and inland manufacturing towns” stood homes that had been “originally erected for the merchant princes” but that were “now in ruins… having been the abodes of those possessing wealth, they are now the abodes of the improvident, of the vagrant, of the vicious, and of the unfortunate”. The strange effect, Rawlinson noted, was that the poor lived amid crumbling grandeur and decorations intended for the former wealthy residents. “The quaint carving on the stone-work looks out of place, the walls are half in ruins, the gables are shattered, and foul weather-stains of damp blotch the surface. The staircase is darkened, its massive hand-rail and carved balusters are crippled and broken; the once firm stairs are now rickety and dangerous; the stucco-finished plastering is blackened and in holes…”

How much have British homes changed since the Georgian era? A House Through Time historian Melanie Backe-Hansen explores the evolution of housing in Britain over the past 300 years

The British home has changed substantially in the past 300 years (Illustration by Ed Crooks)

Polluting industries

Between 1851 and the end of the 19th century, the population of Britain almost doubled. As the industrial cities burst at the seams, their poorest residents, along with the polluting industries upon which they often relied, expanded into the surrounding fields and farmland. But they also spread into earlier suburbs that had been built in previous decades, on what had then been the outskirts of town. The homes built in these districts had been designed for the affluent middle classes, people who had the means to pay rents far beyond those that the poor could afford people who in many cases had moved to the suburbs in order to escape the pollution and the unhealthiness of the inner-city districts. When cities expanded, those genteel residents fled further afield, migrating to more distant suburbs that were often linked to the city centres by the omnibuses routes and later the railways. They left behind them three and four-bedroom townhouses in elegant streets that were then inhabited by the poor.

This process was so familiar that it was commented upon not just by sanitary reformers and journalists, but by novelists. In 1857, the writer Charles Manby Smith recounted the history of Strawberry Street, a fictional London address located in the very real suburb of Islington. When Strawberry Street was first built in the 1820s it consisted of a “double row of two-storied dwellings” that soon attracted “professional ladies and gentlemen, whose neat brass-plates informed you that they taught drawing and painting and japanning, and French, Italian and German, and the pianoforte and singing, and the practice of all kinds of musical instruments. Then there were clerks, managers and responsible persons employed in the city, who came home to their families in Strawberry Street, as regular as the clock, about seven in the evening.”

All slums were miserable and insanitary, but districts that had fallen from respectability to impoverishment, like Strawberry Street, had specific problems

By the 1850s, however, the population of London had increased by more than a million to reach a total of around 2.5 million, and Strawberry Street had been wholly “swallowed up in Babylon’s bosom”. No longer a fashionable street in a stylish inner suburb, the “professional ladies and gentlemen moved by degrees further north, and their places were supplied by a new class – by tradesmen’s clerks, by foremen and overseers of workshops, men… who came home at all hours of the night, and let themselves out in the dark mornings of winter long before sunrising, and who let lodgings to help to pay the rent… the whole street on both sides of the way, with the exception of a very few houses, was transformed into a third-rate business street, and had lost all trace of its original neatness.” When a factory opened up nearby, Strawberry Street was on its way to becoming a slum.

All slums were miserable and insanitary, but districts that had fallen from respectability to impoverishment, like Strawberry Street, had specific problems. Low wages meant that the poor who were drawn to them had to spend a higher proportion of their income on rent than the middle classes – they were victims of what today is termed ‘housing stress’ or ‘rent poverty’.

To create accommodation that was within their limited financial reach, and in the hope of drawing as high a rental income as possible from their properties, landlords converted large homes that had been designed for single family habitation into tenements and lodging houses. Multiple small rooms were created out of once elegant dining rooms and parlours, using thin partition walls. These rooms were linked together by labyrinths of dark, windowless corridors.

Unavoidably insanitary

Having never been designed for multiple occupation, the residents of subdivided tenements had no choice but to share water supplies and privies. Such communal facilities were often unavoidably insanitary, a condition made worse by the fact that when the supply of rooms that the poor could afford declined, often as a result of slum clearance schemes, yet more people were packed into houses intended for single families. In 1851, within the infamous Hillgate slum that clung onto the southern banks of the Tyne, Robert Rawlinson encountered one large house in which 71 people lived. Such overcrowding had the inevitable effect of making bad conditions worse.

Over a long enough timeframe, houses, as well as people, are capable of social mobility. They can rise up or fall down the social scale according to the vagaries of fortune. Hundreds of thousands of houses across Britain have histories of decline and decay that in recent times have been perhaps overshadowed by our passion for renovation and gentrification. Most of the worst of the Victorian slums were long ago demolished. Yet many homes that today are highly sought-after have concealed behind discussions of original features and the salesmanship of estate agents – chapters of their pasts in which they became the refuges of the very poor and anything but desirable residences.

David Olusoga is the presenter of A House Through Time, the third series of which begins on BBC Two on 26 May

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This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine