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Five facts about London’s Victorian slums

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The Victorian period was a miserable time to be poor. Assistance was only awarded to people who could earn a living, however meagre that living might be. Those who would not or could not work were treated as an “underclass” whose impoverished state was akin to a criminal offence. Individuals who found themselves on the bottom rung of the social ladder had very few options available to them. They could subject themselves to the inhuman conditions of the local workhouse or they could take their chances on the streets, finding shelter in slum housing.

The slums of London

During Queen Victoria’s reign numerous slums lurked behind the capital’s busy thoroughfares: Vicious and overcrowded hovels were sandwiched in between the Mile End Road and Commercial Road in Stepney, wretched rookeries lay behind Drury Lane and filthy tenements lined the west side of Borough High Street. However, none of the above were quite as bad as Dorset Street in Spitalfields. Described by the Daily Mail as “the worst street in London” it played host to the people most Londoners preferred to forget.

Lords of the Slums

The Victorian authorities were very happy to hand over the problem of social housing to private landlords. These men and women – often from impoverished backgrounds themselves – were given free rein to control the districts in which they operated, with very little interference. Consequently, they became the “godfathers” of their territory, providing safe houses for criminals, operating brothels and running illegal gambling rackets. Any unwelcome attention from an over-zealous policeman was swiftly dealt with by way of a bribes.

Thieves’ Kitchens

The slum landlords’ most lucrative investments were Registered Common Lodging Houses, so-named because they had to be registered with the police. These doss houses were a familiar sight in the Victorian slums. Identified by a large lantern looming over their front door, they provided miserable accommodation in squalid dormitories lined with pest-ridden beds. The unfortunate inmates of these establishments paid by the night and no questions were asked as long as you had enough coins in your pocket (usually around four pence) to gain admittance. The lodging house doors opened at around 8pm each evening and the inmates were turned out, whatever the weather, at 10am the following morning so the rooms could be aired in preparation for the next intake. Although the Common Lodging Houses were supposed to be inspected by the police, officers rarely made an appearance. Thus, they became a popular resort of the criminal fraternity, earning them the nickname, “Thieves’ Kitchens.”

Henry Mayhew’s descriptions of poverty

Although Victorian society in general chose to ignore the horrific conditions in the slums, some individuals were determined to expose the plight of the poor. One such man was Henry Mayhew, a journalist who wrote a series of articles about London’s poverty-stricken inhabitants during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. His work was later published in a ground-breaking book – London Labour and the London Poor – which revealed in detail the conditions in which these people were forced to live. Mayhew described the inmates of a Common Lodging House thus:

“The pickpockets lodging there consist of handkerchief stealers, shoplifters…Besides pickpockets, there are also lodging in the house speculators in stolen goods…I have known, says my informant, these speculators to wait in the kitchen, walking about with their hands in their pockets till a little fellow would come in with such a thing as a piece of bacon, or a piece of mutton. They would purchase it, and then either retail it amongst the other lodgers in the kitchen or take it to some fence, where they would receive a profit upon it.”

Charles Booth’s map of London poverty

By the closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign public opinion of poverty and its myriad evils was beginning to change. One of the most influential projects was Charles Booth’s poverty survey, which looked at every street in London (except those in the City,) and colour coded them on a map, with black denoting the most deprived areas. Officially entitled an “Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People of London” the survey began in 1886 and took Booth and his assistants 17 years to complete. Today this fascinating document can be viewed online here.

Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew constantly pressed for improvements to Britain’s slums, but little was actually achieved during Queen Victoria’s reign. However, during the decade that followed her death in 1901, some significant changes occurred. In 1905 the Unemployed Workmen Act gave financial support for businesses to employ more workers and the following year, children from impoverished families were offered free school meals. After the Liberal Party swept to power in the 1906 General Election more welfare reforms were introduced, notably the introduction of old-age pensions in 1908. The seeds of a Welfare State had been sown.

By Fiona Rule

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