Life in 19th-century slums: Victorian London’s homes from hell
Graphic images of 19th- century slums are familiar to us today. But what were they really like? Why were they built? And how were they cleared? Jerry White explores the capital's meanest streets...
“Tyndall’s-buildings is a court containing 22 houses… the basement story of nearly all… was filled with fetid refuse, of which it had been the receptacle for years. In some… it seemed scarcely possible that human beings could live: the floors were in holes, the stairs broken down, and the plastering had fallen… In one, the roof had fallen in: it was driven in by a tipsy woman one night, who sought to escape over the tiles from her husband.”
So George Godwin, editor of The Builder, described a Holborn court around 1859. He could, as he well knew, have been describing any one of an uncountable number of courts and alleys clustered densely in the old suburbs around the cities of London and Westminster and in the ancient borough of Southwark. Many of these places predated the Great Fire of 1666, or had been cheaply run up since then, with passages cut through houses fronting the streets and leading to courts built on gardens and yards behind.
Some houses consisted of just two rooms, one on top of the other; some were back-to-back with no through ventilation; all shared with neighbouring houses earth-closets built over cesspits, and took their water from a common standpipe. In such places it was impossible to keep either bodies or dwellings clean; it was often easier to defecate in the streets, over gratings or in hidden corners than in the filthy crowded privies of the poor.
Tyndall’s Buildings and their like may have been the archetypal slums of Victorian London but in fact slums came in many forms. In the early 19th century, as London grew and pressure on house-room increased, any open space – remnants of market gardens, marshy meadows not previously profitable for building, or the grounds of former farmhouses – became valuable terrain for the jerry-builder. These fag-end parcels of London clay would be leased for 21 years or even less, so builders had every incentive to put up hovels that would last no longer than that: without foundations; with dirt floors; with walls just half a brick thick; with yards and streets unpaved and without drains.
Such places were slums as soon as they were built. They might be clustered in large numbers in shanty towns which were sometimes named after the entrepreneur who had first developed the land. In London there was Tomlin’s New Town in Paddington; Agar Town, north of Battle Bridge and today’s King’s Cross; and the Potteries, self-built colonies of potters’, brickmakers’ and pig-keepers’ cottages west of Notting Hill.
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“A Village – Not Picturesque,” was how Mary Bayly, an evangelical ‘bible-woman’ active among the poor of North Kensington, described the Potteries in 1859, citing a passage from Household Words, Charles Dickens’s first weekly magazine, to make her point: “There are foul ditches, open sewers, and defective drains, smelling most offensively… not a drop of clean water can be obtained – all is charged to saturation with putrescent matter. Wells have been sunk on some of the premises, but they have become, in many instances, useless, from organic matter soaking into them. In some of the wells the water is perfectly black and fetid. The paint on the window-frames has become black from the action of the sulphuretted hydrogen gas. Nearly all the inhabitants look unhealthy; the women especially complain of sickness and want of appetite; their eyes are sunken, and their skin shrivelled.”
It was to deal with places such as the Potteries and Tyndall’s Buildings, in almost every part of built-up London and on all its scabrous margins, that a new London government was established in 1855. London’s local vestries, each of which appointed a Medical Officer of Health and sanitary inspectors, would be responsible for public health, while the London-wide Metropolitan Board of Works would take on the tasks of draining London, driving new streets through congested districts and, later, clearing the slums through ‘Improvement Schemes’.
Remapping with road and rail
There were, though, as many ways of dealing with the slums as there were types of slums themselves. Road-building had long given London’s governors – crown and parliament before 1855, local government thereafter – the excuse and opportunity to rid the metropolis of great nests of troublesome neighbourhoods. Commercial Street was driven along the course of Rose Lane, Spitalfields, around 1840, and a little later New Oxford Street was built through the Irish rookery (‘The Holy Land’) of St Giles in the Fields. Victoria Street cleared part of the ‘Devil’s Acre’ near Westminster Abbey, while Farringdon Road and the underground railway destroyed much of the notorious Field Lane. Even late in the 19th century and into the Edwardian era, the slum-clearance potential of Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell, and Kingsway, Holborn were crucial factors when deciding whether public money could be granted for such projects.
Elsewhere railways, those great drivers of London’s prosperity at mid-century, swept away Agar Town; this short-lived shanty of the 1840s was destroyed within two decades for the Midland Railway’s giant warehouses. It is estimated that railway clearances elsewhere in the metropolis, mainly in the 1860s, evicted 56,000 people, most from the poorer working classes. Suburban development by speculative builders also cleared some slums: in this way Tomlin’s New Town was remodelled out of all recognition by ‘Tyburnia’, north of Hyde Park, in the 1830s.
The slum clearance role of railway schemes was strictly secondary to the commercial needs of the companies, and the primary purpose of road schemes was ostensibly to facilitate London’s constipated traffic flows rather than to dislodge the poor, with their dangers and diseases, from the places they had to call home. It was not until the first official slum clearance measure – the Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 – that London government was given a weapon to strike directly at the heart of the city’s unhealthy slums.
Health was the driving force behind this act, though almost everywhere it was the most turbulent districts – long known for crime and disorder even more than for infectious disease and high mortality – that were chosen to fall to the housebreaker’s hammer. Flower and Dean Street (in the Spitalfields district), Bedfordbury (St Martin-in-the-Fields), Old Pye Street (Westminster), Tabard Street (Southwark) and a host of other districts had long been notorious as criminal haunts, home to large numbers of prostitutes and thieves.
In fact, there were so many potential targets that the Metropolitan Board of Works overreached itself, evicting thousands while the housing associations who should have provided new homes proved unable or unwilling to build, and cleared sites lay empty and undeveloped for years to come. Indeed, by the time of the greatest clearance of all – that for the ‘Jago’, the Boundary Street area of south-west Bethnal Green, in the 1890s – the London County Council, the replacement authority for the discredited Board of Works, decided itself to build working-class housing on the site. By the turn of the 20th century the Boundary Street Estate would become the first great municipal housing venture in London.
By that time, however, a new sort of slum had become all too evident. Exuberant building speculations during the three decades following 1845 built a seemingly endless expanse of middle-class housing north of the river, from Pimlico in the west to Dalston in the east. At first there seemed to be a bottomless market for three- and four-storey London properties built in long terraces – but the demand proved illusory. One of the consequences was that product of late-Victorian building: the suburban slum.
This was much more difficult to deal with than the irredeemably shoddy towns of Agar and Tomlin. These houses were solid enough, and certainly pretentious; they were intended for lower middle-class families, with rooms for one or two servants in the attics and a kitchen in the basement. But they either never found those ideal tenants, or quickly lost them to a host of competing streets nearby. Some of these slums were isolated streets that had lost cachet, such as Sultan Street in Camberwell, Litcham Street in Kentish Town, and Campbell Road in Finsbury Park – later described as “the worst street in north London” – albeit being surrounded by respectable streets.
The slum clearance legislation of 1875 was never designed for houses as generous in size, with dedicated sanitary and washing facilities, and sturdily built to last the full length of a 99-year lease. The problem was not so much the houses themselves but the way they were used. Instead of a single middle-class family in occupation, these properties became ‘tenement houses’ or ‘houses let in lodgings’, with a working-class family on each floor – increasingly, one in every room.
The most troublesome and intractable of these new suburban slums lay next to the Potteries of North Kensington. Notting Dale, built from the early 1860s, absorbed the older district’s habits, and corrupted the streets built nearby to the south and west. Notting Dale became known as ‘The West-end Avernus’ or ‘hell on earth’. By 1896 it was ‘home’ to more than 4,000 people. Its houses were densely overcrowded, many occupied by 20 people and more, often sharing a single toilet. Here, 43 children out of every 100 would die before reaching their first birthday. According to the local authority, though, the houses were far less of a problem than the people, prone especially to “drunkenness” and “inherited disease”. Notting Dale’s population was said to be “largely made up of loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves, and prostitutes”.
When, at the end of the 19th century, the social reformer Charles Booth pondered how to deal with the “semi-criminal and degraded” populations of Bangor Street, Crescent Street and the other notorious places of Notting Dale and beyond, he could suggest only that they “be harried out of existence”. Demolishing homes and dispersing ‘savages’ was one way of attempting this – but was easier said than done. Notting Dale would not see significant demolitions until the end of the 1930s, and much of the surrounding district retained its evil reputation for another two decades. Even in the early 1960s, and in a very different London, this part of North Kensington would continue to be known as ‘a troubled area’.
Jerry White is professor in history at Birkbeck, University of London, specialising in working-class London life since 1700, and author of London in the Nineteenth Century (Jonathan Cape, 2007).
This article complemented a five-part BBC Two series The Victorian Slum, showing modern families living in simulated slums, which aired in autumn 2016.
Slum clearances: evicting the lowly
Between 1878 and 1899, slum clearance schemes in central London led to 45,334 men, women and children being evicted. Those, at least, are the official figures; the real numbers may be much higher, because it was in the slum landlord’s interest to evict as many people as he could before the official valuation of his property – empty rooms having greater letting potential than houses filled to the rafters. There is no figure for those thus ‘winkled out’, but even the official number is huge – equivalent to the population of Rotherham in the 1890s.
Who were these people? The short answer is: we don’t know. The voice of the evicted slum-dweller is, for all practical purposes, silent. Some among them would have been intelligent and articulate, literate and skilled. Most, though, were the nameless poor, who lived large parts of their lives in hunger, cold and semi-nakedness. Perhaps word of mouth told them to stay put for the few shillings of compensation that came their way, but that is all they got. At the end, as the social reformer the Earl of Shaftesbury described in the House of Lords in 1875, when the bailiffs arrived “perplexity and dismay are everywhere; the district has all the air of a town taken by assault”. The slums were not cleared to benefit people like these. They were cleared to get rid of them.
The Metropolitan Board of Works, and its successor, the London County Council, provided or enabled housing associations to provide dwellings for 46,934 persons. On the face of it, that was a small gain. But those new dwellings were never intended for those who had been evicted. The slum dwellers were kept out by rules with which they couldn’t comply, and by rents they couldn’t afford. So where did they go? It’s likely that they melted into neighbouring streets, or moved to congenial ‘slums’ nearby or even farther afield. Only a few score of the 45,000 people evicted ever occupied the new London that replaced their old homes.