Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Prologue - Chapter 1

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A Clerkenwell Interior
A Clerkenwell Interior

The following pages are inscribed
His Royal Highness



THE war of nations is a frightful evil (great the sin of those who render it necessary), but we must not shut our eyes to the direful operations of relentless foes at home, more costly and more deadly, though carried on with fewer trumpets. The miserable condition in which thousands of human beings are condemned to pass their lives in London and other large towns is a giant evil, a giant which should be slain if we would not have it slay us. And a war against this, fortunately, is a war which can be prosecuted without fear of loss, and with the certainty of success. There is no question about this,-no doubt. To whatever extent the endeavour is made, to that extent will advantages follow; as certainly as that two and two make four, and that we are all bound by the solemnest of injunctions to bear our part in the fight, - a fight against dirt, disease, disorder, degradation, and death; - a fight in a Holy War.
    Only those who have examined into the evil for themselves can judge of its enormous extent and its frightful results. We are all interested in the removal of it, immediately and personally; and yet, blinded by ignorance or trusting to chance, we shut our eyes to the fact, and go on building gaols and forming penal settlements, to punish what might have been prevented; taxing our means to pay the cost of illness and death wickedly produced, and dying ourselves, it may be said without irreverence, long before there is any real necessity for doing so.
    Part of the following statements with reference to the condition of London appeared originally in "THE BUILDER," and obtained the commendation of some whose good opinion is a reward. It has been urged that the further publication of them in a cheap form might be useful, and, believing it to be of the [-viii-] greatest importance that the extent of the disease should be widely known, in order to induce corresponding efforts for its cure, the suggestion has been adopted. In some few instances ameliorations may have been attempted since these remarks were written; but nothing has been done to any extent. I have visited places during the last fortnight not fit for dogs, and yet which hold in every room two or three families, - holes, ill-drained, ill-ventilated, and altogether unsuited for use. In the occupants of such places-men and women with bodies to suffer and souls to be lost-the feelings are blunted, the moral perceptions distorted; decency is out of the question, and degradation nearly certain. Goodness and virtue are sometimes to be found there, wonderful to say, but the majority have no hope; progress is impossible, the future a blank: in the dirt they are, and in the dirt they must remain. A remedy may be afforded at all events we may deal successfully with the next generation, and surely, surely this should be attempted. What is hereafter set forth has not been written to make a case, but to state plain facts. The examination has been painful and disheartening : still, to succeed to any extent in obtaining for the suffering thousands dwelling-places worthy the name of HOME, where the virtues and kindly feelings might be cultivated, and the household gods worthily set up, would be a reward so rich that the labour of the endeavour is not to be considered. Most earnestly then, and with deep feeling, I venture to implore the co-operation to this end of all who would advance society, lessen suffering, promote the happiness of their fellow creatures, and save the frightful amount of money, power, and life, now annually wasted in this kingdom. We may all do something, and moreover we are bound to do it
        "This world is full of beauty as other worlds above,
        And if we did our duty, it might be full of love."




"When every man is his own end, all things will come to a bad end."


DEEP are the "Mysteries of London," and so environed by difficulties, that few can penetrate them. The condition of large sections of its inhabitants is wholly unknown to the majority of those above them in the social pyramid, the wide base of which is made up of poverty, ignorance, degradation, crime, and misery. Much has been written on it within the last few years, and a large amount of good has been done. Still the great bulk of the people are ignorant and apathetic on the subject, blind to the extent to which they are themselves concerned in it: and, viewing the evil as a mighty one, and strongly impressed by the helpless - almost hopeless - condition of many thousands of fellow-creatures, who cannot make themselves heard unless the press speak for them, we propose entering into some particulars respecting the lodging-houses and other dwellings in London inhabited by the poorer classes, with the view of inducing efforts for their amelioration. It is quite possible to house the poorer classes comfortably and healthfully at as little cost to themselves as they now pay, and at infinitely less cost to the community at large; and what we desire is, to aid in bringing this about. As the writer has said elsewhere again and again, and the sentence has been echoed and reechoed far and wide, - homes are the manufactories of men, - as the home, so what it sends forth.
    To investigate the condition of the houses of the very poor in this great metropolis is a task of no small danger and difficulty : it is necessary to brave the risks of fever and other injuries to health, and the contact of men and women often as lawless as the Arab or the Kaffir: in addition to these obstacles, there is amongst the very poor a strong feeling against intrusion few persons venture into these haunts besides the regular inhabitants, the London missionaries, the parish surgeon, and the police, and thus the extent of this great evil is imperfectly understood. A few years ago it was a fashion to visit the "Rookery" of St. Giles's, and wonder at the peculiarities of that [-2-] strange land (and it was, perhaps, partly owing to these visits that some improvements were carried into effect); yet few of those visitors, and not many others, are aware of the numerous places in London and the Borough which exist at the present day in as bad a condition as any part of St. Giles's in its worst time. These blots on London abound in Whitechapel, Westminster, Spitalfields, Camden-town, Somers-town, Clerkenwell, Islington, Bermondsey, various parts of the Borough, &c. &c. In many instances these hotbeds of fever and vice are so effectually hidden by goodly houses that the inhabitants of the latter are scarcely aware of the poverty and disease which exist within a stone's throw from their own doors. These densely-peopled clumps of houses, or "Rookeries" as they are called, are mostly inhabited by the poorest Irish lodging-house keepers, tramps, coster-mongers, thieves, and the lowest class of street-walkers. In addition to these there are small shopkeepers, receivers of stolen goods, brokers, and publicans.
    Of the condition of the greater part of these people it is difficult to convey anything like a just idea. It is a certain and melancholy fact that this dangerous, and to the State, expensive class of persons is alarmingly increasing in London and other large towns; and this is easily to be accounted for. Many of the poor Irish who flock to these places are either unable to get employment, or are careless in looking for it. The women and children either beg, sweep crossings, or exist (for it is nothing better) on the profits of the sale of such trifling articles as they can procure. The parents are mostly ignorant, so are the children few are sent to school: few are taught any trade; and the great majority, from an early age, gain a precarious living in the streets : many become thieves (little wonder), and in their turn teach others. Most of this class either marry young or form connections by which the numbers rapidly increase. There are other causes, which it is not our purpose in the present paper to inquire into.
    It is, however, certain that one important and leading cause of this degradation is the condition of the dwellings in which thousands of these outcasts are born, and in which they live and die. Improving these would do much towards improving them. Let us then penetrate some of the London shadows, and show their distressing depth, - their degrading results. When the nature and extent of an evil are thoroughly known, efficient remedies become more probable. The Act for Improving the Condition of the Common Lodging Houses seems to be working well ; but in justice to the poor, it must be followed by other measures.
    So numerous are the London "Rookeries," and so generally bad, that it is difficult to fix upon a starting-point. Circumstances, however, lead us to the outwardly respectable neighbourhood of the Marlborough-street Police Court : here, close to Berwick-street, exists a little-known but badly-built and badly-inhabited collection of houses. The people of this district were, and still are, the constant plagues of the police some of the public-houses are of the worst description. Read the following printed announcement copied verbatim from the [-3-] window of a chemist's shop close by: it will help to give an idea of the inhabitants:-

It is warranted that the Preparation is not
Injurious to the Skin.

    This chemical and artistic process should be profitable practice, provided the parties care sufficiently about disguise, for black eyes are plentiful enough. So great a nuisance and expense had this "Rookery" become to the parish and police authorities, that it was determined amongst several influential occupants in the parish to provide funds by voluntary subscription for the purchase of a large group of wretched buildings, and for the purpose of erecting on their site wholesome and convenient dwellings for the poor. A certain amount was obtained, a large square patch of the worst houses in the neighbourhood cleared away, and the new building commenced. The promoters rightly felt that the dwellings of the poor should not be demolished without providing other places which, under good regulations, they could occupy at moderate cost. Recently it was found necessary to transfer the responsibility to the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, of which, hereafter.
    The houses destroyed were abominable, and the inhabitants most difficult material to deal with. Several very desperate characters had lived there, and only those who had seen the houses previously can form a just estimate of the benefit of their removal.
    The four sides of the square in which the improvement to which we have alluded is going forward, consist of houses chiefly let in single rooms, which, before the Lodging-house Act came into operation, were occupied by numerous lodgers, male and female. The houses are mostly dilapidated and dirty in the extreme. In one of these houses, in a cellar reached by a dark staircase, the steps shaky and the stair- rails rotten, we found a dark apartment, in which were two bedsteads, with scanty and dirty covering. The flagged floor was bare and damp; in one part of the room stood a tin apparatus used for the sale of baked potatoes; partly under the beds were onions and baskets of potatoes (most of the London costermongers store their unsold fruits, flowers, vegetables, fish, and other commodities, in similar places). There was no furniture except the two bedsteads, in one of which was an Irishman, who roused up at our entrance. "Not up yet; why, it is nearly eleven o'clock!" "Is it really so late?" said the tenant of this gloomy abode ; "but then I was not home until past three this morning: I had not sold my potatoes." This man had six children and a lodger who all slept in this place, as he said ; and if it could be [-4-] managed without the knowledge of the police, it is probable that several other lodgers would take up their nightly abode in it.
    At the back of most of the houses alluded to, after passing through a long passage, are small, square, badly-paved courts, like that shown in the engraving (Fig. 1).

Court near Berwick Street
Fig.1 - Court near Berwick-street.

    The water stands here and there in deep puddles. In the courts we saw were conveniences, as shown in the engraving; a dust-heap (A), formed by a large stone slab, well filled with dust and refuse. "The dust," said a person living there, "is not often taken away." At (C) is a water-tank. These are all shared amongst the lodgers in the cellars, say eight persons. If only five persons occupy each of the eight rooms in front, and six the two rooms in the back court, this is all the accommodation of water, &c., provided for fifty-four persons
    [-5-] On ascending the wooden steps shown in the engraving, we find the room which we have engraved (Fig. 2). We have not selected this as a harrowing example of London dwellings, although it is had enough. The court is enclosed back and front by tall houses. The room is little more than 7 feet long by 6 feet wide; the greatest height

Interior of House in Court
Fig. 2. - Interior of House in Court

6 feet 9 inches. The narrow bedstead, which is doubled up in the daytime, reaches, when let down, close to the fire-place. The roof and part of the walls are green and mildewed with damp : through parts of the roof the sky is distinctly visible. Our engraving makes the room appear too large.
    It may be useful to note, where practicable, the class of persons who occupy the various places visited. The room engraved is occupied by a married couple of about twenty-two or twenty-three years of age, [-6-] and a little girl about two years old. The young man had been brought up amongst poor persons in the neighbourhood: his education had been neglected, but he had been employed in various ways until he obtained a situation as light porter. He married a respectable young woman, a servant. A short time after marriage he lost his situation, and failed to obtain another. By some means he and his wife got into the method of cutting thin wooden splints, which are used in public-houses and cigar-shops. This, he says, is "poor work :  the price has become so much reduced, we are glad if we can manage to get two meals a day, and then but poor ones. We seldom can afford to get a fire except on Sunday, and perhaps on part of Monday; and this place is very cold, there are so many holes. I have spoken repeatedly to the landlord, but he has done nothing. I pay 1s. 6d. a week. I am 6s. 6d. back in my rent. The rain during the last wet weather poured into the room, sometimes upon the bed. In the morning and during the wet days, we have a pool of water under the bed and on the floor. No one lives below; it is a kind of stable, and very dirty. The little child is often ill. I have parted with many of my things." The child was small, drooping, and bleached, like many of the plants which attempt to vegetate in such places. Yet this is not an example of the direst stage of London poverty. It is but a step in the story. Here are fire-irons, and various matters which would bring a price: there the neat hand of woman - the world's blessing, and who in her lowest degradation has a perception of the beautiful, - has given a dash of taste to the arrangement. Above the fire-place are several little framed prints; one representing two lovers walking on a terrace, overlooking trees and gardens bright in the light of the clear sky: another shows a richly-furnished chamber, with a couple of more mature years : there are also some unframed prints of the young royal family, and a row of small beads are festooned in the centre. On the mantelpiece are various little baskets, and other nicknacks of no great value, but evidently relics of a more prosperous time; a little key, perhaps of some prized workbox. The cupboard without a door contains an odd collection of crockery; a candlestick, with the extinguisher on the last snuff; no food visible, except a small crust on the shelf beside the teapot. Poor as this place is, it is still a home; and there are several thousands of these struggling homes in London. It is painful to think what may be the next stage of this young couple's poverty. The husband may, perhaps, not get another situation as porter, or anything more profitable than the employment in which he is at present engaged. His family will probably increase. The various illnesses of his wife, and perhaps children, will cause his little property to be periodically parted with. The landlord will see when there is barely enough left to pay arrears of rent, and the cost of bringing an execution. The goods will be seized, and conveyed away to a neighbouring broker, and then the still young couple and children are thrown houseless upon the world. The next refuge is the 1odging-[-7-] house, with all its horrors, vices, and temptations. We will not at present follow them.
    Let us now seek another neighbourhood. Our readers have, doubtless, heard of Agar-town and district, near King's-cross railway station I This extensive and ill-built district ranges from the railway station, past the graveyards of St. Pancras and St. Giles's-in-the-fields, and continues in a northward direction until the extremity almost forms a line of intersection with Pratt-street, Camden-town.
    The Agar-town estate is built on land leased from the dean and chapter of St. Paul's; and the mode of granting leases of church lands is not calculated to ensure improvement in building, good drainage, or other measures necessary for health. This large tract of land was granted on lease to a gentleman connected with the law, Mr. Agar, after whom the district was named. Mr. Agar died, leaving his property to some very young children. At that time the large residence near Pratt-street was in the fields, and no houses had been built on the estate. Indeed, so retired was this place, that within the last fifteen or sixteen years nightingales have been heard near a clump of trees at a short distance from Mr. Agar's house. The land was, however, soon let out into small strips, on leases for thirty years. No systematic plan of drainage was laid out : in fact, the houses were planted down very much in the same manner as the wooden huts and tents at the gold diggings: each man suited his means or fancy in the erection of an edifice on the land which for a few years was, on certain conditions, his own: we cannot wonder, therefore, that great oddness, and economy, and ignorance were in many instances exhibited. The ditches, which had been originally used for draining the fields, were made to answer, to a certain extent, the purpose of drains in carrying away the refuse of the occupants. The ditches in summer time became stagnant, and diseases of the worst description were spread over the district. At the time of the last visitation of the cholera, most of these ditches or uncovered drains were piped and covered over, after great exertion on the part of some of the more intelligent of the inhabitants. Considering this large district at present little better than waste land, for many of the leases must soon expire, and thinking the site available for useful purposes, we will give a more particular description of it.
    The sketch of "Paradise-row" (Fig. 3) shows a clump of houses which much belie their name, with part of the new railway station in the background. It is a neglected and unwholesome place, inhabited chiefly by costermongers. This row has long been the wonder of all visitors : in front of the dilapidated buildings are heaps of refuse the houses are of small dimensions, some of the doors near here are not more than five feet six inches high : and the smell of this place, particularly in hot weather, is dreadful, caused by the decay of refuse.
    Leaving this point, we progress towards the northmost of the houses nearer the St. Pancras-road, which are occupied by costermongers, nightmen, chimney-sweeps, and other very pool people, who pay [-8-]

Paradise Row, Agar Town
Fig. 3 - Paradise-row, Agar-town.

[-9-] four, five, and six shillings per week for these dirty and confined dwellings, of four small rooms each. Wooden sheds are fixed for donkeys, used to draw trucks,-indeed, several of these most useful animals to costermongers occupy part of the family residence: dogs and pigeons are plentiful, and many desperate attempts are made to cultivate plants.
    We now reach the gas-works, which are of great extent; the huge iron tanks contrasting with the pigmy dwellings; the smoke and escaped gas from this factory pervade, according to the direction of the wind, every part of the adjoining district. On the right hand is the coal depot of the Great Northern railway : in front of this passes the London and Birmingham canal, which runs through the Agar-town estate: about this part are "melters'" yards, a saw-mill, cinder heaps, and rows of houses such as we have spoken of, with large gardens in front of each : at the time of this visit the frost had partly dried the road, but a short time since it was soft mud for a depth of two feet. Some of the interiors of these cottages are deplorable; they have for their inhabitants in addition to mechanics, costermongers, and worse characters, decent persons of small income and in struggling circumstances. There are men, each with a family, and perhaps an income of 80 or 100 per year, who will be found to brave the dangers and inconveniences of these places rather than run the risk of taking an expensive house and letting off a portion, or of taking part of a house, where their whole affairs would be exposed to the other inhabitants, not to mention the inconveniences which the construction of houses not intended for several families occasions. Some of the houses at the northern end of Agar-town let from 7s. to 8s. per week: some small cottages in the King's-road, leading from the workhouse, consisting of four rooms, a wash-house, and garden, let for 28 per annum.