Géricault’s engraving entitled “Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man” emphasises the isolation and misery of the London outcasts; the companionship of a dog continues to be a token of the wandering life in the city.
Mrs. Ambrose understood that after all it is the ordinary thing to be poor, and that London is the city of innumerable poor people”: this sentence from Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out expresses a great truth about the nineteenth century in which she was born.
The poor have always been part of the texture of the city. They are like the stones or the bricks, because London has risen from them; their mute suffering has no limits. In the medieval city the old, the crippled, the deformed and the mad were the first poor; those who could not work, and thus had no real or secure place in the social fabric, became the outcast. By the sixteenth century there were poor sections of the city such as East Smithfield, St. Katherine by the Tower and the Mint in Southwark; it could be said that by some instinctive process the poor clustered together, or it might be concluded that parts of the city harboured them. They were hawkers or pedlars or criers or chimney-sweeps, but they belong to that underclass which Defoe described as “The Miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.”
In eighteenth-century accounts we read of squalid courts and miserable houses, of “dirty neglected children” and “slipshod women,” of “dirty, naked, unfurnished” rooms and of men who stayed within them because their “clothes had become too ragged to submit to daylight scrutiny.” Those who lacked even this primitive accommodation slept in empty or abandoned houses; they sheltered in “bulks” or in doorways. In London Life in the Eighteenth Century M. Dorothy George estimated that by that century’s end there were in London “above twenty thousand miserable individuals of various classes, who rise up every morning without knowing how … they are to be supported during the passing day, or where in many instances they are to lodge on the succeeding night.” This has been plausibly related to “the general uncertainty of life and trade characteristic of the period.” So we may say that the underlying nature of London is most visible, or most sharply manifested, in the lives and appearance of its poorest inhabitants. Other city dwellers, rendered fearful, shunned the poor. The very presence of the poor increased the morbid nervousness and restlessness of all Londoners. We see the shape of the city from the shadow that it casts.
That shadow can be traced within the contours of Charles Booth’s “poverty map” of 1889 where blocks of black and dark blue, denoting the “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal” and the “Very poor, casual. Chronic want,” creep among the red and gold bars of the affluent. A larger-scale map outlining the districts of the poor identified poverty in 134 areas “each of about 30,000 inhabitants”; here the dark blue areas cluster around the banks of the Thames but elsewhere there is a pattern of concentric rings “with the most uniform poverty at the centre.” They were London-born and London-bred, in Paddington and in Pimlico, in Whitechapel and in Wapping, in Battersea and Bermondsey.
Travellers noticed impoverishment everywhere and commented how degrading and degraded were the London poor, quite different from their counterparts in Rome or Berlin or Paris. In 1872 Hippolyte Taine remarked that he recalled “the lanes which open off Oxford Street, stifling alleys thick with human effluvia, troops of pale children crouching on filthy staircases; the street benches at London Bridge where all night whole families huddle close, heads hanging, shaking with cold … abject, miserable poverty.” In a city based upon money and power, those who are moneyless and powerless are peculiarly oppressed. In London, of all cities, they are literally degraded, stripped of all human decency by the operations of a city that has no other purpose except greed. That is why the poor were “abject” in the streets of nineteenth-century London and, as the city increased in power and magnitude, so did the numbers of the poor increase.
They represented almost a city within the city, and such a large aggregate of human misery could not be ignored. John Hollingshead’s Ragged London, published in 1861, suggested that one-third of the urban population lived “in unwholesome layers, one over the other, in old houses and confined rooms” which themselves were to be found in “filthy, ill constructed, courts and alleys.” The atmosphere of disgust and menace here is only barely suppressed. In London, Mrs. Cook concluded in Highways and Byways of London (1902) “misery is strangely prolific,” which suggests that the fear of the poor derived from the fact that they were likely to multiply indefinitely. She was speaking of the Borough: there poverty and misery seemed to have grown to such an extent that Southwark was overcome by it, but she could have been referring to a hundred other parts of the city. The places of the poor were “pestilential,” according to the author of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883, thus confirming the fear that this kind of abject poverty and degradation was, in the conditions of London, somehow contagious; the futility and the despair might spread throughout the rookeries, where “tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors.”
It is as if the streets themselves engendered these huddled masses. A newspaper report of 1862 named “Nichols Street, New Nichols Street, Half Nichols Street, Turville Street, comprising within the same area numerous blind courts and alleys.” Here the litany of street names itself is meant to conjure up degeneration, where the “outward moral degradation is at once apparent to any one who passes that way.” So the houses and lanes themselves are guilty of “moral degradation.” Does the city reflect its inhabitants, or do its inhabitants mimic the conditions of the city? Dwellers and dwelling places become inexact metaphors for one another, as in this passage from Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903): “Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved and dirty … The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic … The father returning from work asks his child in the street where her mother is: and back the answer comes, ‘In the buildings.’” Observers were generally agreed that the life of the poor had reached such a level of hopelessness and squalor that “a new race has sprung up” and, further, that “it is now hereditary to a very considerable extent.” If Victorian London was itself so changed as to have become a new city, here was the new population with which it was filled.
This was the urban phenomenon which Engels diagnosed, and which he watched closely. In St. Giles, “the extent to which these filthy passages are fallen into decay beggars all description … the walls are crumbling, the door posts and window frames are loose and rotten.” Marx lived a few yards away in Soho. So the condition of the mid-nineteenth-century city directly inspired the founders of communism; it might be said that their creed issued out of the slums of London, and those Victorian observers who believed that some great or alarming new reality would emerge from the pervasive presence of the poor were not wholly wrong. The London poor did indeed generate a new race or class, but in countries and civilisations far distant.
In Long Acre, Engels noticed, the children are “sickly” and “half-starved.” He conceded that the worst forms of poverty were not visited upon all “London workers,” but “every working man without exception may well suffer a similar fate through no fault of his own.” This was one of the most tenacious visions of poverty as a palpable threat, this the despair that the city could breed, precisely because the conditions of London itself were enough to drive people into the slums. The uncertainty of employment, for example, was one of the most pressing reasons why people “broke” (to use an early nineteenth-century word) and were reduced to beggary. A cold winter meant that dockers and building workers were thrown out of work or, in the phrase of the period, “turned off.” To turn someone off—in an age when all the talk was of energy and of electricity, this was the ultimate dehumanising and degrading force.
Areas where the poor lived were also “turned off.” The city had grown so large that they could be concealed in its depths. Engels quotes one clergyman who declared that “I never witnessed such thorough prostration of the poor as I have seen since I have been in Bethnal Green,” but who reiterated that this area was quite unknown to, and unvisited by, other Londoners. In other quarters of the city “about as little was known … of this destitute parish as the wilds of Australia or the islands of the South Seas.” The image of the wilderness once more emerges, but now with connotations of darkness and impenetrability.
Here again was another monstrous feature of the great metropolis, where rich and poor could live side by side without noticing each other’s existence. Engels quotes from an editorial in The Times of 12 October 1843, which suggested that “within the most courtly precincts of the richest city of GOD’s earth, there may be found, night after night, winter after winter … FAMINE, FILTH AND DISEASE.” From this vantage Engels looked at the whole society of London, and concluded that it was not sane or whole. “The more that Londoners are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and disgraceful becomes the brutal indifference with which they ignore their neighbours and selfishly concentrate upon their private affairs.”
So London has created a new phase in human existence itself; its poverty has in a real sense impoverished all who, in the mad pursuit of getting and spending, have created a human society of “component atoms.” A new race was therefore being created not only in the tenements of St. Giles but over the whole face of London where “the vast majority … have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused.” Engels suggests that this is the real poverty within the city, which only a revolution could extirpate.
Nineteenth-century London, then, created the first characteristically urban society on the face of the earth. What now we take for granted—“they rush past each other as if they had nothing in common”—was then greeted with distaste. For anyone who marvelled at the greatness and vastness of the Victorian city, there were others who were disturbed and horrified. Here, in the streets of London, real “social conflict, the war of all against all,” actually existed. It was a harbinger of the future world, a cancer that would not only spread throughout England but eventually cover the great globe itself.
One of the great studies of poverty in late nineteenth-century London was, and remains, Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1903); it ran to seventeen volumes, and went through three editions. Like the city that it was examining, it was on the largest possible scale. A monumental work, it is filled with suggestive details and suffused by a curious pity. It is in fact the vision of London lives which renders Booth’s work so significant. “The last occupant of the back room was a widower, scavenger to Board of Works, a man who would not believe in hell or heaven … At No. 7 lives a car-man in broken-down health. He fell off his cart and being run over broke his leg. On the floor above is a very poor old lady living on charity, but a happy soul expectant of heaven.” In the neighbourhood lived a man who was “a notorious Atheist, one who holds forth on behalf of his creed under railway arches, saying that if there be a God he must be a monster to permit such misery as exists. This man suffers from heart disease, and the doctor tells him that some day in his excitement he will drop down dead.” These are the permanent inhabitants of London. “On the ground floor live Mr. and Mrs. Meek. Meek is a hatter and was engaged in dyeing children’s hats in a portable boiler. A cheery little man … At the back lives Mrs. Helmot, whose husband, formerly an optician, is now at Hanwell suffering from suicidal melancholia.” All the variety of human experience is revealed here; the cheerful hat-maker and the suicidal optician are more suggestive than any characters in nineteenth-century urban fiction.
It is as if the city had become a sort of desert island, upon which its occupants picked their way. But there was another life which, against all the odds, kept on breaking through. “How the poor live,” a nurse told Booth, “when they are helpless remains a mystery, save for their great kindness to each other, even to those who are strangers. This is the great explanation.” A Nonconformist preacher also told him that “It is only the poor that really give. They know exactly the wants of one another and give when needed.” A Roman Catholic priest informed him, “To each other their goodness is wonderful.” Here is another reality lying concealed beneath all the descriptions of filth and squalor. The intimate experience of shared suffering did not necessarily injure the spirits of the very poor. The conditions of urban life could lead to despair, and drunkenness, and death, but there was at least the possibility of another form of human expression in kindness and generosity to those trapped within the same harsh and noisome reality.
Booth ends his account with a memorable paragraph: “The dry bones that lie scattered over the long valley that we have traversed together lie before my reader. May some great soul, master of a subtler and nobler alchemy than mine, disentangle the confused issues, reconcile the apparent contradictions in aim, melt and commingle the various influences for good into one divine uniformity of effort and make these dry bones live, so that the streets of our Jerusalem may sing with joy.” It is an astonishing revelation. Charles Booth more than any other man understood the horror and the misery of nineteenth-century London, yet he invoked the image of a joyful Jerusalem to conclude his discourse.
By the time he had completed his labours, which took eighteen years, Booth recognised that the very worst conditions had been alleviated, but only the very worst. Many of the slums had been removed, some of their erstwhile inhabitants moving to “model dwellings” or to the newly established council houses on council estates. Improved sanitation, and a more general concern with urban hygiene, also affected the lot of the poor in marginal ways. But where would the city be without its poor?
A survey conducted in the late 1920s, the New Survey of London Life and Labour, calculated that 8.7 per cent of Londoners were still living in poverty; the same figure, however, has been re-estimated in other contexts as 5 percent and 21 per cent. This illustrates the problems in any discussion of poverty—levels of deprivation are relative, but relative to what? The depression of the 1930s, for example, led to the creation of what were then known as “the new poor,” and another survey in 1934 reported that 10 per cent of London families lived beneath the “poverty line.” There was no famine, but there was malnutrition; there were fewer rags, but still a plethora of ragged clothes. The first decades of the twentieth century were marked by hunger marches and marches of the unemployed, the effects of which were mitigated by the introduction of unemployment benefit and more enlightened use of the Poor Laws.
Yet poverty never leaves London. It merely changes its form and appearance. In a recent survey into “measures of deprivation,” the highest counts were in Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney and Tower Hamlets (formerly Bethnal Green and Stepney); these are precisely the areas where the poor of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries congregated. So there is a continuity of need or distress, clustering around significant localities. Asian children now play in Old Nichol Street and Turville Street, and the area is curiously silent after its raucous and terrible life as the “Jago,” the area of Shoreditch immortalised in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896). Poverty has now become less noisy, and noisome, than in any of its previous incarnations but it is present nonetheless, an intrinsic and instinctive part of the city. Were there no poor, then there would be no rich. Like the women who accompanied eighteenth-century armies, dependent and defenceless, so do the poor accompany London on its progress. It created the poor; it needed the poor, not least for the purpose of cheap or casual labour; now they have become the shadows which follow it everywhere.