Fig 1: Whitechapel 1849 (London Illustrated News)
THE city of London at the end of the nineteenth century was the largest single metropolis on earth – it was larger than the next two cities, Paris and New York, combined. It contained areas of the greatest wealth, wealth which poured in from the Empire alongside some of the worst and most dangerous slum areas and rookeries that have ever been seen. There are, however, also many delusions and false ideas about the people who lived in these areas – for example, by 1870, some seventy per cent of children were attending regular education until the age of 10. From 1870, through the Forster Education Act, local School Boards were set up the duty of which was to ensure a place at a school for every child up to the age of 12, and fully funded for the poor. Within a short period of time, the school attendance rate rose to some 98% and the average 11 year old was literate and numerate to a relatively high degree. This led to a boom time for the newspaper industry as, by the late 1880s, most people were able to read said news sheets without requiring the aid of others. From this, there comes an equally perhaps surprising deduction – the people of the East End had the money to purchase these newspapers. In the 1820s, families struggled to provide enough to purchase the food they required or the coal needed to prevent freezing to death in the winter. This was a result of the massive industrialisation processes which had taken place in those six decades. Even unskilled labourers would receive some 4 shillings a week – skilled labourers might double that salary and a foreman could expect a very respectable 15 shillings a week. This is not to say that these wage qualified as wealth (though in comparison with their parents and certainly grandparents it might well have seemed so) and the people might still be living in slum areas and in poor quality housing, but, as the growth in newspaper sales demonstrates, there was a certain small amount of spare cash with which to purchase these, and there was a growing thirst for knowledge of what was going on out on the greater stage.
Five shillings a week would allow the renting of a decent house, consisting of two bedrooms, a parlour, a kitchen and a family toilet in the backyard. This would be a most respectable residence and would feed the growing expectations of those who now composed the lower middle class who were resident in, for example, Whitechapel. Three shillings would gain access to a smaller house, yet still a pleasant abode (remember we are talking in relative terms here!) and 1/6 per week would gain a room in someone else’s house. For the very poor, a penny might gain a bed in a communal dormitory. As such, we can see that a skilled labourer and above might well be able to keep his household in, while not comfort, at least a comparatively good standard of living for the area and the period. For the unskilled, while perhaps not quite as easy, having children go out to work at eleven, as was the norm, might again allow for a much higher standard of living than had been the usual for previous generations.
This shows that there was another side to the East End, however, this was only part of the norm. The horrors of the rookeries and the roughest streets imaginable were also omnipresent. When work was scarce, then wages were unearned and families struggled desperately to make ends meet. Many were either unwilling or unable to do the jobs on offer. Laziness and feckless living were as common here as in the richer areas, though there they had the wealth to pursue their habits: and ever present was the daemon drink. With beer at thrupence a pint and gin at tuppence a tall glass (pure gin here!) the temptation to escape into the seeming relief of alcohol was a common practice, often developing into full blown alcoholism, either due to worsening circumstances or, more than understandably, as an escape from the horror of everyday existence for the poor women forced into the streetwalking profession.
While each parish had an obligation to provide a workhouse which provided free food and lodging and basic medical care, the fact that evidence shows many women seemed more than willing to turn to prostitution rather than the workhouse shows what these establishments truly were. In summer, ‘carrying the banner’ (sleeping on the streets or in the public parks) was preferable to the poor food, the harsh regime and the very early curfews offered by the workhouses. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens, one of our most reliable contemporary social commentators:
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Fig 2: Men queue up outside the Whitechapel Workhouse in Valence Street c. 1900
Charities, usually Church funded, did also attempt to provide for the destitute and provided better lodging and quality of food, but as the major requirement was that residents be both “sober and modest”, those who were often most in need of their help would fall down on one or the other of these and even for those who did qualify, the number of places both in these establishments, and the workhouses as well, were usually fewer than required, especially in the cold weather. Margaret Harkness, a writer researching the East End life, wrote:
“The Whitechapel Union is a model workhouse; that is to say, it is the Poor Law incarnate in stone and brick. The men are not allowed to smoke in it, not even when they are in their dotage; the young women never taste tea, and the old ones may not indulge in a cup during the long afternoons, only at half-past six o’clock morning and night, when they receive a small hunch of bread with butter scraped over the surface, and a mug of that beverage which is so dear to their hearts as well as their stomachs. The young people never go out, never see a visitor, and the old ones only get one holiday in the month. Then the aged paupers may be seen skipping like lambkins outside the doors of the Bastile, while they jabber to their friends and relations. A little gruel morning and night, meat twice a week, that is the food of the grown-up people, seasoned with hard work and prison discipline. Doubtless this Bastile offers no premium to idle and improvident habits; but what shall we say of the woman, or man, maimed by misfortune, who must come there or die in the street? Why should old people be punished for their existence?” [In Darkest London, 143]
Those who were left without a roof over their heads, (reckoned as high as some 8,000 per night) were left to try to pay for a place in one of the 200+ doss houses, most of which were to be found in the worst areas of the slum. Referring to the Brick Lane slum, Arthur Morrison wrote in “The Palace Journal”:
“Black and noisome, the road sticky with slime, and palsied houses, rotten from chimney to cellar, leaning together, apparently by the mere coherence of their ingrained corruption. Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing – human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare.” 
The very worst of these slums was thought to be the 20 streets that composed the ‘Old Nichol Rookery’ of Whitechapel, where some 6,000 plus people were crammed into just over 700 houses. In the 1890s, the Old Nichol was the first area flattened by the London Council and new council housing erected in its place, the first such undertaking in the country.
The general populace who lived outside of these awful conditions usually claimed ignorance of the horrors which were, in reality, almost on their doorsteps, (the Spitalfields slum was surrounded by better areas) yet, in the 1880s the pastime of slumming was becoming quite common:
“…with a curiosity to see the sights, and when it became fashionable to go ‘slumming’ ladies and gentlemen were induced to don common clothes and go out in the highways and byways to see people of whom they had heard, but of whom they were as ignorant as if they were inhabitants of a strange country.“ [New York Times, September 14, 1884]
Attempts were made to increase awareness of the plights – in 1851, Henry Mayhew produced “London Labour and The London Poor” which gave a no holds barred view of the poverty and struggle, and such major reports as Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (17 volumes, 1889–1903).
Fig 3: Charles Booth’s “Poverty Map” showing Whitechapel District.
Fig 4: Glasgow, second city of the Empire, 1868, Thomas Annan
Slums did not only exist in London, it must be remembered – the industrialisation that had so rapidly taken place meant that such slum areas developed in all the major cities.