Grim Realities of Life in London's 19th Century Slums
Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums

D.G. Hewitt - April 6, 2019

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
For some slum residents, suicide in the Thames seemed the best option. Literary London Society.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
In London, around 1 in 4 slum babies wouldn’t live for more than 12 months. Pinterest.

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 than 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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
Did mothers in the slums really murder their infant children out of desperation? Pinterest.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
Children in the slums had miserable lives and abuse was sadly commnplace. Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
Killers like Jack the Ripper preyed on young women from the slums. Ripper Tours London.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
The public loved reading stories of misery and deprivation. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
Many Londoners believed the poor were to blame for their own horrible lives. The British Library.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
As slums were cleared, thousands of London’s poor ended up homeless. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
The lives of the poor weren’t helped much by early housing reform laws. Pinterest.

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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
Rich tourists started visiting the slums for their own amusement in the 1880s. The British Library.

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 1880s, 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.

Grim Realities of Life in London’s 19th Century Slums
A mixture of individual campaigners and religious groups finally started making the slums better in the 1890s. Pinterest.

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.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Life in 19th-century slums: Victorian London’s homes from hell,” History Extra, 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.

“The 1888 Matchgirls strike: how a group of East End women changed British labour history”. History Extra. October 27, 2021

“Victorian London’s East End: what can a foul murder tell us about life in the city?” History Extra, 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.”

“Desolation Row: Victorian Britain’s Sensational Slums”. Nell Darby. History Today. 18 Oct 2017.

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.