It was the height of the British Empire. From London, Queen Victoria ruled over large parts of the world. Riches flowed back to England from India, the Caribbean and numerous other colonies. Global trade routes made industrialists hugely wealthy, while the aristocracy were able to make the most of their inherited wealth. However, there was a darker side to 19th century London. Starting in the middle of the 1700s, large numbers of people had been flooding into the big city in search of a better life. What they found was poverty and misery, especially in the slums they were forced to call home.
Many of these slums were located in parts of London that are highly fashionable today. Spitalfields, just to the east of the centre, is these days home to hip designers and artists, while what were once the slums of Holborn are now home to big businesses in the fashionable West End. It’s hard to imagine just how grim life was here in Victorian times. Rising populations meant that demand for accommodation skyrocketed – and people would do almost anything to have a roof over their head. Families lived side-by-side in abject poverty. Violence, abuse and disease were all part of everyday life in London’s slums, and desperate times called for desperate measures.
But what was everyday life like for those poor souls who called the slums their home? From sleeping arrangements to paying the bills, here we present 20 grim facts about life at the very bottom of Victorian society:
20. Slum landlords could only lease land for 21 years – so their buildings were never built to last.
Most slums were made up of large houses, or tenements, divided into individual rooms. Almost all of them had been hastily erected to cash in on the population boom of the early 19th century. Enterprising – and greedy – businessmen built on marshy meadows that had previously been used as market gardens, with the clay ground long regarded as unsuitable for building on. Notably, the city regulations meant that parcels of this land could only be leased for 21 years at most. As such, builders had zero incentive to make sure the ‘homes’ they built would last longer than this.
To begin with, slum buildings had no real foundations. They were highly unstable, and would often collapse, usually with fatal consequences. This short-term thinking and rush to cut costs as much as possible also meant that the walls were just half-a-brick thick. Needless to say, such thin walls offered no protection from the elements and would often simply collapse. Despite the shoddiness of the buildings, many of the original developers put their names to them, and these names stuck. For more than 100 years, many of London’s worst slums, including Tomlin’s New Town, were named after the greedy investor who first built on marshy land.
19. Many slum houses flooded, and in the winter, the water turned to ice in people’s rooms.
In 1859, Charles Godwin, the editor of the London-based magazine The Builder and an expert on architecture and housing in the capital, paid a visit to a slum. What he saw astounded him – and shocked his readers. While he was well aware that slum buildings were almost always in a state of disrepair, he was not prepared for just how bad the conditions were. Godwin told his readers: “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.”
Such terrible conditions were commonplace. Many families lived in basement rooms, situated below street level. When it rained, the water seeped in, flooding them. And then when the temperatures dropped, the single pipe providing water to slum buildings would freeze. Holes in the walls and windows would be covered up in newspaper or anything else that came to hand. Unsurprisingly, many simply froze to death in their own ‘homes’ during the long, cold winters of London. These conditions were the focus of Charles Mowbray’s campaigning work and were instrumental in bringing about reforms.
18. In the Doss Houses of the slums, people took turns to sleep in the same filthy beds.
Not everyone had a room of their own in the slums. A significant number of people, including men, women and whole families, moved from place-to-place constantly. Doss houses – also known as common lodging houses – rented out beds for the night. By the end of the 19th century, there were 1,000 doss houses registered in London, and they were often the last resort for anyone wanting to avoid spending the nights on the streets or checking themselves into the nearest workhouse and toiling away in return for basic accommodation.
Beds in doss houses were very cheap. They were even cheaper if you rented them for a few hours, as most people did. Grown adults would sleep in shifts – and, of course, the bedding wasn’t changed between guests. Though unpleasant, the alternative was much worse. Notably, the East End prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was working the streets of Whitechapel trying to raise the pennies needed to get a bed in a local doss house when she fell victim to Jack the Ripper. According to some accounts, she had raised the money twice over but had spent it on drink before she went back out on the streets to sell her body one last time.
17. Homelessness was a major problem – and you were lucky if you could get a ‘coffin’ to spend the night in.
As hard as it might be to imagine, but the men and women living in cold, cramped and filthy tenements didn’t have it so bad – at least not compared to the homeless who tried to eke out a living in the slums. Many of the men who came to London to work on the railways, including the Irish ‘navvies’ struggled to get a proper room of their own. Homelessness was a huge problem, even in the slums. And, while the Salvation Army and other charities started helping these poor unfortunates towards the end of the 19th century, even slum rooms looked more comfortable than the temporary shelter they offered.
Perhaps the most depressing option was the ‘four penny coffin’. For the prince of 4 pence, a homeless man could lie down for the night in a wooden box. These coffin-liked beds would be lined up in long rows in old warehouses. What’s more, such ‘coffins’ were the luxury option. For a single penny, a homeless person could escape the streets of the slums for a night and sit on a chair. But they would have to pay double if they wanted to sleep while sitting up. It’s hardly surprising that many of London’s homeless just gave up and chose the indignity and cruelty of the workhouse over a life on the streets.
16. Children would bathe in – and even drink – from the same filthy streams that were used as slum sewers.
In 1849, the journalist Henry Mayhew paid a visit to one London slum. His subsequent report, In a Visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey, shocked his readers. Above all, his description of the filthy conditions the ‘wretched people’ of the slum had to endure on a daily basis made many angry – even if nothing was done about it. Mayhew noted that a single open sewer ran through the main street of the slum. Into this, occupants emptied buckets of waste. Indeed, he noted, “we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it”.
More shocking still, Mayhew reported that children not only bathed in the same sewer water, but that he witnessed some people taking water out of it. According to the journalist, the slum’s inhabitants would fill pails with water from the sewer. They would leave these to stand for several days. They would then be able to skim “solid particles of filth, pollution and disease” from the top of the buckets and drink the ‘clean’ water that remained. Any water that was left over was used for bathing.
15. The poor residents of the slum were by no means idle and they tried everything to try and earn some money.
Throughout the Victorian era, puritan middle and upper-class men and women would routinely dismiss the people living in London’s slums and lazy and feckless. This could not have been further from the truth. While there certainly were many work-shy people living in poverty, there were also plenty of people working hard, just trying to get by. In the slums of the 19th century, children were expected to start work as early as the age of 7. And when a girl turned 13, she would be abler to try and find work at one of the East End’s biggest employers – the Bryant & May matchworks.
In the late-19th century, thousands of women and young girls worked in match factories, most of them travelling to work everyday from the slums. Most worked 14-hour shifts, with their pay docked for breaks, including toilet trips. The work was hard and, due to the presence of toxic white phosphorous, dangerous. What’s more, the pay was terrible, with the factory owners imposing almost slave-like conditions on their workforce. Finally, in July 1888, the Bryant & May workers had had enough. Girls as young as 13 went on strike, without any proper support. The tactic eventually worked and the matchgirls are credited as pioneers in workers’ rights in Britain.
14. Young boys from the slums often ended up cleaning the streets or sweeping chimneys to try and survive.
Employment options were quite limited for boys from the slums, especially for those not old or strong enough to find work at the docks or on a construction site. One of the best ways of earning a little bit of money was to get a job with the council clearing the capital’s streets of horse dung. According to one estimate, there were around 300,000 horses in London by the 1890s. They produced an incredible 1,000 tonnes of manure a day, clogging up the streets and making them filthy. The city council would pay boys aged between 12 and 14 to dodge between the horse-drawn carriages and shovel up the dung. As well as being dirty work, it was also incredibly dangerous as few cab drivers would slow down or swerve for a boy from the slums.
Alternatively, a young boy from the slums could try and find work sweeping the chimneys of rich Londoners. While there were laws in place to prevent abuse, these were not really taken seriously until the very end of the 19th century. That meant children from the slums – and in particular, orphans from the East End – would be sent up tight chimneys to sweep them of soot. Many boys were traumatized by the work, especially if they were employed by cruel, strict masters, and there were numerous tales of young boys becoming trapped in chimneys and suffocating to death.
13. Prostitution was the only choice for many women in the slums, and many started selling their bodies before the age of 12.
Given the high levels of poverty – and the lack of routes out of it – prostitution was rife in London’s slums throughout the 19th century. Nobody can say with any certainly just how many prostitutes were working the streets of the city. However, some social historians have put the number at around 80,000. While there were a relative few middle-class ladies working as high-class escorts, the vast majority of prostitutes were from the slums. Moreover, according to surveys carried out by campaigners at the time, most were aged between 18 and 22, though most were much younger.
In the slums of East London, for example, most girls who went into prostitution did so aged 12 or even younger. This was especially true for orphaned girls, and this group were particularly vulnerable to being forced to work the streets by violent pimps. However, not all poor women were forced into prostitution – many worked the streets after working long days in London’s factories, trying to earn enough to feed their families. Whether they chose sex work or were forced into it, the risks were the same, however. Many prostitutes were assaulted, raped and even murdered, with the police rarely troubling themselves with such cases.
12. Just like in Oliver Twist, London’s slums were home to gangs of child criminals.
Through his novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens made gangs of child criminals a central part of the popular perception of Victorian-era London. But just how accurate was the novel? Like much of Dickens’ work, it was certainly exaggerated. However, many children from the slums did indeed turn to crime in order to get by. And many did indeed pick pockets for gang masters. The records show, for instance, that the St Giles Slum, located in the very heart of the modern-day West End, was home to a man called Thomas Duggin. He was a notorious ‘thief-trainer’ and he exploited the desperation of young boys, getting them to pick the pockets of wealthy Londoners for him.
By the middle of the 19th century, the public were in a panic over ‘child gangs’. This was partly the result of the popular press whipping up hysteria in order to sell newspapers. However, the court records show that the average citizen had a right to be worried. London’s judges dealt with hundreds of cases of child pickpockets and thieves each week. Indeed, between 1830 and 1860, half of all the defendants tried at the famous Old Bailey were aged 20 or under. And most of them were boys who came from the slums. While thieves could be sentenced to death, in reality, many were imprisoned or sent to the penal colonies of Australia – in fact, children as young as 10 were sentenced to ‘transportation’, right up until the end of the 1800s.
11. Suicide was all too common, especially among women desperate for a way out of the slums.
The author Charles Dickens was fascinated by London life, especially the lives of its poor. He would base his characters on the occupants of the city slums, and one of his most unpleasant creations was Gaffer Hexham in the novel Our Mutual Friend. Gaffer makes his living fishing bodies out of the River Thames, going through their pockets for any loose change or stripping their bodies of rings or other pieces of jewelry. Tragically, this was a real job in the Victorian era. And, in many cases, the bodies were of the men and women of the slums, people who had killed themselves rather than face another day of misery.
A disproportionately high proportion of the suicides were young women from the slums. In particular, historians of the era note that young women forced to work as prostitutes were most likely to throw themselves into the fast-flowing river in despair. However, it wasn’t just the bridges over the Thames that were popular suicide spots for fed-up slum-dwellers. Police reports from the time also reveal that Hyde Park was also a top suicide spot, with poor people drowning themselves in the Serpentine boating lake at night. The bodies would rarely be identified, and in most cases were sent straight to London’s universities and hospitals to be dissected by medical students.
10. Infant mortality rates in the slums remained shockingly high throughout the 19th century – 1 in 4 babies never lived more than 12 months!
Unsurprisingly, given the cramped conditions of the slums, child mortality rates were extremely high throughout the 19th century. Indeed, while the statistics show that the proportion of children surviving beyond their first birthday rose steadily over the course of the century in most London boroughs, this was certainly not the case in the inner-city slums. The statistics show that 1 in 5 infants died at 12 months or younger in the slums. What’s more, in Old Nichol Street, one of the city’s most notorious slums, 1 in 4 babies never made it to their first birthday. This number may have been even higher, since many births – and, therefore, infant deaths – simply went unrecorded, with the babies then not given a proper burial.
Even if you made it past your first birthday, the odds of making it to middle-age – or even to old age – were not good at all. For males, work was hard and dangerous. In fact, the best statistics we have suggest that the life expectancy for a casual laborer in 19th century London was just 19. And it was around the same for females. While teenage girls were unlikely to die on construction sites, falling pregnant could, and often did, prove fatal.
9. Many infants died after being suffocated while sleeping in the same bed as their parents – but were these really tragic accidents?
One of the biggest killers of young children was a problem that became known as ‘overlaying’. Quite simply, many homes were so small and cramped that children would sleep in the same bed as their exhausted, over-worked parents. Sometimes, an adult or older child would roll over in their sleep and suffocate an infant. According to one report from the time, in the year 1887, 5 in 6 of all infant deaths that occurred in homes where families shared a single bed were the result of ‘overlaying’. But were such deaths tragic accidents or something more sinister?
To some contemporary observers, many ‘overlaying’ deaths were murders. The parents – and it was almost always the mother blamed – could not afford to feed the infant, and so suffocated it. To judgmental critics of the Victorian poor, this was yet another sign of the sinfulness of the slums. More recently, however, academics have argued that many ‘overlaying’ cases were in fact, tragic instances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). That meant countless mothers in the 19th century either wrongly blamed themselves for the deaths of their children or were unfairly accused of murder.
8. In the cramped and dirty slums, sexual abuse of children was accepted as another grim part of life.
Sadly, it wasn’t just disease and dirtiness that the children of London’s slums had to cope with. Sexual abuse was rife in the poorer parts of the city. Just how bad it was is hard to quantify, however. Most cases of abuse would have gone unreported, while some reports from outside observers were sensationalized and exaggerated, keen to present the slums as dens of sin. However, most historians of 19th century London agree that a significant proportion of children would have been sexually abused at some point – with both young boys and girls targeted by predators taking advantage of the dark alleys, cramped conditions and lack of policing.
Most children in the slums would have been exposed to sex from a very early age. Given the cramped living conditions, they would have seen their parents having sex – surely a traumatic sight for younger infants. Many would also have endured much worse. Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of the London School of Economics, would write: “To put it bluntly, sexual promiscuity and even sexual perversion – the violation of little children – are almost unavoidable among men and women of average character and intelligence crowded into the one-room tenements of slum areas.”
7. Jack the Ripper was not the only killer stalking women in the London slums.
Famously, Jack the Ripper preyed on the poorest, most vulnerable members of London society. But, while ‘Saucy Jack’ may be the most famous slumland predator, he was by no means alone. Indeed, numerous killers stalked the alleyways and lanes of London’s slums during the 19th century. And, like the Ripper, many of them preyed on the lowest of the low, including desperate prostitutes. However, while the Ripper Murders won significant media attention, forcing Scotland Yard’s detectives to take action, often, random prostitute murders usually went unsolved, and were often not really investigated at all.
That said, some 19th century London murders did make the headlines at the time. Notable among them was the 1872 killing of the prostitute Hariet Buswell. The penniless girl was found dead, with her throat cut, in a boarding house. Though a ‘German-sounding’ man was identified as the murdered and a doctor even arrested, nobody was ever charged for the killing. Since Buswell was ‘just’ a prostitute and not a middle-class lady, the case was soon closed – though some say the victim still haunts the place where she was killed.
6. ‘Slumland storytelling’ was hugely popular – and the London public loved stories of fallen women and feral children.
For the first half of the 19th century, most ‘respectable’ Londoners were happy to remain ignorant about the poverty and despair they were living alongside. But then, from around the 1840s onward, a new phenomenon emerged. In the words of the historian Alan Maybe, ‘slumland storytelling’ became big business. Prominent writers and journalists would venture into the city’s slums. Their reports, rich in descriptions of feral children, fallen women and violent drunk men, were a hit with readers. The more salacious, the better such stories sold, so writers would regularly exaggerate their reports, playing on the prejudices of their readers.
It wasn’t just tabloid newspaper journalists who cashed in on this public thirst for slumland storytelling. The prominent author Jack London wrote about the miserable lives of the poorest Londoners, as did George Sims, Arthur Morrison and Jacob Riis. However, the biggest demand was for true crime stories from the slums, especially the sexual murders of young women. The Illustrated London News led the way in providing the public with pictures to go with the graphic reports. Inevitably, the lines between fact and fiction became blurred, and this wasn’t just confined to London either – Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff all had slums, and slumland storytelling boomed here too.
5. Most middle-class Londoners believed the residents of the city’s slums were to blame for their own misfortune.
For much of the 19th century, middle and upper-class Londoners could simply pretend slums didn’t exist at all. The ‘two Londons’ rarely, if ever met. Indeed, a well-to-do Londoner would have had no reason to venture into a slum – even the poor, desperate prostitutes usually went into the main city to try and find clients. Indeed, for decades, the East End of the British capital was widely referred to as ‘darkest London’. It was a completely unknown world, a terra incognita, for ‘respectable’ Londoners, and they were happy for it to remain that way.
Then, when it became impossible to deny the existence of the slums, or question how horrible the living conditions really were, many well-off Victorians resorted to blaming the poor for the state of their housing. In popular newspapers and journals, the poor were dismissed as lazy and decadent, with the terrible conditions of the slums of their own choosing. It was only in the mid-1850s that campaigners started convincing the public that slums were the result of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion rather than the result of the ‘sinfulness’ of their occupants.
4. Construction of railway tracks led to the destruction of many slums, leaving thousands destitute and homeless.
In the 1850s and 1860s, London underwent a transformation. The age of the railways had come, and lines were being built to connect the capital with other English cities. These lines were to run out of the center of London, meaning many buildings would have to be demolished to make way for progress. While the owners were compensated for their loss, anyone renting a room was not. In all, it’s estimated that around 56,000 people lost their dwellings in the space of a decade, with the poorest Londoners the worst hit by the railway clearances.
Some slums were lost completely. Agar Town, which had been home to thousands of families, including a large Irish immigrant community, was totally demolished in order to make space for warehouses for the Midland Railway. The slum’s occupants had to find cheap accommodation elsewhere. This heralded the beginning of the end of the city center slum, and the start of the rise of the suburban slum. At the same time, some slums were simply demolished to make way for upper-class housing. The historic slum of Tomlin’s New Town was torn down and replaced with fashionable ‘Tyburnia’, just north of Hyde Park. This was gentrification 1850s style – and the poor were the big losers.
3. The 1875 Artisans’ and Laborers’ Dwellings Improvement Act should have improved things but really little changed for the poorest of the poor.
By the 1870s, the British government decided that something must be done about the country’s worst slums. Significantly, this was not because they wanted to improve the lives of the people living in them. Rather, they were more concerned about citizens living outside of the slums. Experts had long been warning that the terrible conditions of the slums posed a health risk to the middle and upper-classes. What’s more, police chiefs warned that slums were becoming hotbeds of crime and perhaps even revolutionary fervor. The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called for the “elevation of the people”.
The 1875 Artisans’ and Laborers’ Dwellings Improvement Act gave local councils the power to buy up areas of land and then demolish the slums built upon them. Significantly, however, councils were not compelled to do so – so many chose not to. Not only was it expensive for them, but it also risked upsetting the rich men who owned the buildings of the slums. In the end, just 10 of 87 towns in England and Wales had used the powers granted them under the 1875 law to demolish slums. People would carry on living in misery for another 20 years at least.
2. In the 1880s, rich Londoners started going undercover in the slums – and ‘slumming’ became a big business.
The relative failure of the 1875 Dwellings Improvement Act might have been bad news for the poorest members of London’s working class, but it was good for the tourist industry. In the 1880ss, London experienced a boom in so-called ‘slum tourism’. For the men and women of polite society ‘slumming’ became a fashionable activity, albeit one with an added sense of danger. They would don scruffy clothes and put dirt on their faces and then venture into the slums of Whitechapel or Shoreditch to see first-hand the poverty and deprivation they had only ever read about.
Undoubtedly, the ‘slumming’ phenomenon was hugely offensive. Many people did find amusement in witnessing misery and loved bragging about their brushes with danger. At the same time, however, slumming had some positive points. Up until the 1880s, many people dismissed the slum’s residents as feral drunkards. Seeing them in real-life convinced richer Londoners that most poor people were respectable and hard-working, albeit down on their luck. As a result of their slumming experiences, some notable individuals were inspired to start campaigning for better housing for London’s working class. What’s more, encounters between rich gentlemen and lower-class women were also credited with breaking down class barriers and reshaping gender relations.
1. Poverty tourism might have been in bad taste but did help bring about improvements for the masses.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a number of individuals, as well as groups, began to take an active interest in poverty and deprivation, not just in London but across England. Despite the risks, a significant number of middle and upper-class women, including aristocrats, went ‘slumming’ in London’s East End, disguising themselves in poor clothes, in order to gather data on the lives of the people living there. Eyewitness accounts by the likes of Lady Constance Battersea helped sway public opinion, with slums increasingly seen as a symptom of what was wrong with society at large.
Alongside these prominent individuals, several notable groups also stepped up their campaigning efforts. Some were Christian, driven on by their faith, though others were driven by just a sense of social justice. Schools and libraries were set up with the aim of helping the working classes escape poverty, while pressure was put on the government to improve sanitation and clamp down on criminality in the city’s worst slums. Though much was still to be done, by the end of the century, slums were no longer seen as a ‘disease’ and something to be ignored, but as social ill to be addressed head-on.
“Life in 19th-century slums: Victorian London’s homes from hell,” BBC History Magazine, October 2016.
“Slums and Slumming in Late-Victorian London.” Dr. Andrzej Diniejko. Victorian Web.
“Homelessness in Victorian London: exhibition charts life on the streets.” The Guardian, January 2015.
“Victorian London’s East End: what can a foul murder tell us about life in the city?” BBC History Magazine, June 2018.
“Overlaying” in 19th-century England: Infant mortality or infanticide?” Human Ecology, February 1979.
“Dirty Old London: A History of the Victorians’ Infamous Filth.” NPR, May 2015.
“Victorian Slum House.” PBS.org.
Juvenile crime in the 19th century.” The British Library.
Setting the workers alight: the East End Match Girls’ Strike.” BBC.
“Slums.” The British Library, May 2014.
I was born in the East End of London in the 1950s and live was still quite hard for us growing up but, obviously much better than what was described in your fascination Article. I was one of 10 children living in a 4 bedroomed house in Bethnal Green, we were poor. Dad had a low paid job and Mum stayed at home to look after the house and children. Dad was very abusive and violent and made life unhappy but, we were always well fed and clothed by my poor over worked Mum.
Great article. Sad and fascinating.