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
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.” PBS.org.

“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.

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