Coldbath Fields

Simon Bradley

  • London in the 19th Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’ by Jerry White
    Cape, 624 pp, £20.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 06272 5

Moulded in terracotta relief above the door of an austere building in Shoreditch, on the northern fringes of the City of London, is an arresting motto: E Pulvere Lux Et Vis. The ‘light’ and ‘power’ were electrical; the ‘dust’ that was burned to generate them was the refuse from the surrounding streets. Twenty thousand tons of this fuel, most of it horse dung, was gathered locally every year. Incinerating waste and making electricity were combined successfully for the first time here. The surplus heat from the boilers wasn’t wasted either: pumped away from the works, it warmed the local public baths. (The stripped-out shell is now a school for circus skills.) The whole enterprise was the initiative of the parish of St Leonard, one of the more enterprising of the cobbled-together local bodies that governed Victorian London. In 1900, five years after this building was opened, Shoreditch became one of the 28 new metropolitan boroughs under the aegis of the London County Council.

Each chapter of London in the 19th Century takes a street address in the capital as the starting point for a discussion of a wider theme, such as publishing or prostitution. Jerry White’s epigraphs, like his subtitle, come from Blake’s Jerusalem (1804-20), but the contemporary voices in the text tend to be less unworldly. Some of them – Hazlitt, Louis Simond, Dickens, Charles Booth, Arthur Munby, ‘Walter’, Molly Hughes – are well known. Others are obscure but representative figures picked out from press reports, or nameless voices recorded from the crowds, such as the Euston Square prostitute who startled the teenage John Lane, future publisher of the Yellow Book, by asking fortuitously: ‘Johnnie darling, won’t you come home with me?’ Even when he’s not quoting directly, White’s stories and statistics are chiefly drawn from contemporary sources. Here, then, is an attempt at a fresh portrait of 19th-century London, describing its evolution from the dangerous, disease-ridden, oil-and-candlelit city that overcame the challenges of Napoleon’s blockades to the imperial capital that made war on the Boers.

Like White’s previous survey, London in the 20th Century (2001), this book is at times very funny. He quotes a letter in which Dickens describes the parochial fire engine that put out a small blaze at the offices, just off the Strand, of his paper All the Year Round: ‘like a drivelling Perambulator – with the Beadle in it – like an Imbecile Baby. Popular opinion, disappointed in the fire having been put out, Snowballed the Beadle. God bless it!’ The material isn’t played merely for laughs, however. The feeble fire engine is a reminder that the city’s institutions and infrastructure were wholly inadequate.

Between 1800 and 1900 London grew at a staggering rate. Nearly 960,000 Londoners were recorded in 1801, when the city was by most estimates already larger than Paris. The census a hundred years later counted precisely 4,536,267: London was easily the largest city in the world, and with nearly two million more in the outer areas not annexed until 1965. New transport systems and infrastructure – bridges, omnibuses, river steamers, railways above ground and below, horse-drawn trams and then electric ones – enabled citizens and visitors to move around the swelling city with reasonable ease; in 1901, 935 million journeys were made by public transport.

Most of these systems were private initiatives, but other improvements, such as the sewage system, required municipal action. Sometimes, as with the Metropolitan Board of Works’ Victoria Embankment of 1864-70, new sewers accompanied road improvements. The new roads bypassed or unblocked many of the pinch points and bottlenecks responsible for London’s ‘locks’, as traffic jams were then called. Whenever possible, roads were driven through the worst slums. Legislation of the 1870s required accommodation levelled in this way to be replaced by ‘model’ housing, at first provided by limited-profit companies, but increasingly by the boroughs and London County Council.

The railways made possible a second boom in dock-building, on cheap marshy farmland beyond the East End, and so London comfortably kept its position as the greatest port of the empire. It also remained its greatest centre of manufacturing: in 1901, 30 per cent of London’s workers were engaged in factories and workshops, or made things at home.

Then there were London’s new schools, built or rebuilt in a great rush after the Elementary Education Act of 1870: the triple-decked brick board schools are still prominent on the skylines of the inner boroughs. The London School Board itself, which had women on it as well as men and was elected by ratepayers of both sexes, pioneered modern party-political local government. Its headquarters, designed by G.F. Bodley, were on the Victoria Embankment, where they were joined by New Scotland Yard, designed by Norman Shaw. Both buildings were masterpieces of the red-brick, post-Gothic styles generally grouped under the label Queen Anne, which White identifies as the predominant expression of up-to-date London after 1870. Meanwhile, the culture, morals, living standards and expectations of Londoners steadily improved alongside the infrastructure of their city.

One distinctive feature of White’s book is his reluctance to take these grand narratives of progress at face value, and his alertness to the fortunes of those who didn’t profit. At the century’s end, London still had 80,000 people locked up in its workhouses, and in such districts as Notting Dale, also known as the Piggeries, infant mortality was 43 per cent (the figure for London as a whole was 15 per cent). Wages remained low, especially for unskilled labour – the cause, according to Booth, of at least a sixth of family poverty. By his calculations, even in the 1890s more than three Londoners in ten were ‘living under a struggle to obtain the necessaries of life and make both ends meet’.

At times, however, White could be accused of looking for the losers rather too quickly. Take ‘model’ housing for artisans, supplied in increasing quantities from mid-century by the Peabody Trust, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes, and local bodies such as the East End Dwellings Society and Lord Rothschild’s Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company. Even at the time it was recognised that the slum-dwellers displaced to make way for these buildings were rarely the tenants who eventually moved into them. This was partly due to the time-lag between clearance and completion, partly because the tenants’ good conduct was so remorselessly monitored; but the chief reason was that the new blocks were so much more expensive, and the companies so intolerant of rent arrears, that only an elite of skilled workers could afford them. Local studies have shown that the displaced population tended to pile into the cheapest districts at hand, perpetuating or magnifying the overcrowding there. As a result, the model housing project has been presented as a bourgeois self-delusion, all the worse for being provided by private companies offering a low but guaranteed return to investors (an exact counterpart, in fact, to today’s ‘ethical’ investments).

And yet, these blocks would soon have stopped going up if nobody wanted to live in them, and their thousands of new tenants must have left substantial vacancies in the better kinds of private lodging. The value of wages rose, however unevenly or unfairly, by 80 per cent during the second half of the century, and the new housing clearly played its part in the process of levelling up, just as the steady destruction of the very worst properties raised the average level of the housing stock at the bottom of the scale. White’s monograph of 1980 on the Rothschild Buildings also showed that the enforcement of rules and rents could be less strict in practice than on paper.

These distinctly unbeautiful ‘industrial dwellings’ have proved extraordinarily durable: a high proportion are still intact, many of them are now run by the imperishable Peabody Trust. Exempted from the right-to-buy legislation of the Thatcher years, the trust continues to provide housing for working people at low and stable rents. This is the reason that large working-class enclaves can still be found a few hundred yards from the Houses of Parliament, on the south side of Victoria Street. By contrast, the postwar Modernist council estates of nearby Pimlico are turning inexorably into strongholds of the professional classes, as the original buyers join the centuries-old drift to London’s suburbs and satellites.

As for the evictions that preceded the building of these estates, contemporary accounts often stress how poorly the residents had prepared for them. But White’s account also shows up the contrast between the recent stability of London’s council estate population, whose tenancies last for decades or even lifetimes, and the far less sedentary habits of the 19th century. This mobility was common to all social classes. At the top were those with properties outside London, who took private lodgings only for the ‘season’ between May and July and who might end up somewhere new every year. The owner-occupier was relatively rare, and the working classes and lower middle classes in particular might move in response to rising or falling income, to avoid bad neighbours, to be nearer other family members or for a hundred other reasons. So the accounts of mass evictions forced on a helpless and passive populace must be balanced by a sense of agency and choice even among the poorest. Many of them certainly had the initiative to ‘shoot the moon’ and vanish just before Quarter Day, when the rent was due, and landlords sometimes clubbed together to pay for a spy to watch out for defaulting tenants.

Failure to pay the rent was a civil matter; crime was something else. The date here is 1829, when the Metropolitan Police replaced the rudimentary detective forces and ineffectual parish police and watchmen with their collage of tiny territories. (Whenever serious disorder threatened – which was often enough in the first half of the century – the police usually stepped aside as the soldiers and militia went in.) Even at the century’s end, however, there wasn’t much admiration and respect for the police among the lower classes. Much of the criminal activity in poorer districts – drunken violence, domestic abuse, pilfering from shopkeepers and employers, passing on stolen goods – never made the statistics, the police not being trusted to pursue or even to record the crime.

This leads White to question the received interpretation that theft and violence fell substantially in London during the century, as they did in the rest of the country. The downward trend is at odds with the experience of other industrialising societies (the difference, if you like, between Gissing’s world and Zola’s). Perhaps the contrast between the capital, with its limitless opportunities for escape and concealment, and the smaller and more self-regulating worlds of villages and market towns, is too obvious to need labouring. Certainly, London’s tallies for some crimes are so low they seem to have zeros missing: 21,303 felonies against property in 1867, for instance, then 16,149 in 1899. But if the figures look unreal, the downward trend was so widely remarked that it must have existed. After all, the later Georgians and early Victorians built or rebuilt prison after prison for London, even as they transported shiploads of offenders down the Thames; but their grandsons and great-grandsons pulled them down: Newgate, Millbank, Coldbath Fields, Horsemonger Lane, the Clerkenwell and Westminster bridewells, and the various debtors’ jails.

This inexorable amelioration is perhaps the strangest thing about 19th-century England from a contemporary point of view. Run the narrative backwards, and London takes a nightmare journey into neglect, squalor, ignorance and disease.