The Past & Present of London Slums

IMG_5846image.jpegThursdays Victorian London tour was the perfect end to an incredibly informative tour across London. It was amazing to see what used to be considered the worst slum in London, become a beautiful thriving community. As we walked through the community, the tour guide did an amazing job tying the novels we read by Dickens that reflected the structure of the area. The tour started right on the bank of the river Thames and our guide, Kim, explained how difficult it was to live in this area because of how much wider the river used to be. Being poor during the Victorian period was already difficult, but it was even more so when the river nearly washed their only safe haven, Southwark Cathedral, away. We then walked in the opposite direction of Borough Market to see what used to be slums, my imagination managed to run wild and I could see the tall run-down brick tenements that most definitely inspired A Child of the Jago. As we continued to walk through the rebuilt area, I could see the occasional old factory where the lucky few would get be able to obtain a job. And even if they managed to get work, they have to be very careful to not injure themselves or else they’d be out of work, especially seeing that a broken bone wouldn’t have been taken care of properly as it would with workers compensation today. Considering that labor laws were basically non existent at that time, if the main breadwinner temporarily or permanently lost their ability to work, the children will be sent to work as opposed to getting an education. I find it ridiculous and sad that as opposed to even considering sending their children to school, parents during the Victorian period would make their kids get jobs. And even if the kids managed to get an education, the school system was only meant to provide a school, but not the best teachers, classrooms and general learning environment. Something that also touched me was the small gravesite that held the bodies of people who were completely unknown. It hurts to think that these people and their families were so poor that they couldn’t even afford a coffin to put in sacred land, but I’m glad that everyday people have decided to make such a beautiful memorial for the unknown lives and to not tarnish the grounds they were buried in. What I loved the most was walking through one of the old neighborhoods that Dickens would observe and coming upon the bridge that inspired the murder scene of Nancy from her boyfriend Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. It’s just amazing to me how just one poor and depraved, out of many, could inspire such a powerful story. In the end, London was an incredible experience and the historical walking tours were very informative and put all the novels we’ve read for the class in perfect context. Even though this is my first study abroad, and I hope to go on more, I’m positive that my trip here in London will be an experience I will never forget and will almost certainly go back to.image


The Streets of Victorian London – Fiction vs. Fact

Now that we’re at the end of our trip here in London, I’m beyond glad I made the choice to take this course. Of course, as a Victorianist, the appeal was obvious – but the outcome was more than I could have imagined. Though I’ve been to London before and this helped me understand how the city works now, I was constantly in awe at how many small things were such a part of my literary background and reading material. Seriously, would I have looked at that staircase that Kim said was from Oliver Twist and been like “Hey, that’s that staircase from Oliver Twist!”? (No, no I wouldn’t have.)


Kim’s Victorian London tour was easily my favorite of the week. Kim was knowledgable, sweet, and just incredible – she provided a perfect blend between historical and modern facts of the area. I loved that she mentioned nearly everything we read for the course (neglecting Amy Levy, but it was indeed hard to connect her to the tour) and it really got my mind working about our readings and how they relate to the city of London and to each other. I could write a paper on each of these books and how we experienced them during our trip, but I’ll briefly cover a couple here.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

I absolutely loved that Kim mentioned Mayhew during the tour – if I remember correctly, she’s the only tour guide to directly mention him. I thought it was perfect to mention – I like to think of the modern “Humans of New York” (and, in extension, “Humans of London”) as the modern Mayhew-style interview.

Mayhew’s work is one of my favorites. In my undergraduate courses, we covered Mayhew as well, in particular I remember the story “The Watercress Girl,” a story where a young girl sells watercresses on the street and doesn’t even know what playing is, or that she might be allowed to. The Mayhew selections we read for this course, in particular “Those Who Live in Low Lodging Houses,” and the poor watercress girl were in the forefront of my mind as we walked around public housing. First, we saw buildings that would have housed multiple families per room with only one water pump and public bathrooms and, if possible but rare, showers. It’s easy to see how a young girl might not realize she can play, if she is cramped like she would have been in these public houses. If you are in the good graces of the landlord or otherwise property owner, you might be able to have a room of your own (like the ones in the top left picture above), but those were few and far between, especially when you compare to the thousands of people living in the area. Even then, the rules and restrictions might be difficult – as Kim was saying, you might have a set curfew and a set amount of times you had to attend church. If you messed up, you were kicked out, and likely in a worse position than you were in before you got into the house. Sometimes a pioneer like Octavia Hill came along and created housing specifically for women, and they would get a little house to themselves (as shown in the bottom right picture above) – but again, the ratio of houses to people who need them is painfully large. If you got one of these rooms or houses to yourselves, you are either rich, incredibly lucky, or have wonderful connections.

And, occasionally, you lived in a prison with your family, like Charles Dickens did during his childhood.


Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (and his novels / life overall)

Perhaps the most heartbreaking and simultaneously breathtaking part of the tour was when we saw the wall for the debtors prison that Dickens’ father was in. I loved that we went here – it really put that part of Dickens’ life into perspective. Walking through the gates as we left the park gave me an eerie sense of what those gates used to mean, and I felt immense sadness for Dickens and all of the families that had to live with their debtor family members because they had nowhere else to live.

It also got me thinking about Oliver Twist. Ever since Kim mentioned the novel at the beginning of the tour, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially as she trickled more facts into her discourse. When she mentioned Fagin was based on someone Dickens actually knew, one of his friends that stood up for him in the factory, I really started internalizing the autobiographical aspects of Oliver Twist. I loved how passionate Dickens was about ensuring children like Oliver get an education no matter their economic status.

I am still wanting more when it comes to Amy Levy, but perhaps that will be my term paper topic – especially since I managed to grab a copy of her other novel, Reuben Sachs. But that’s another analysis to come!


P.S. I had a lovely lunch after our Victorian London tour at The George Inn, where both Shakespeare and Dickens hung out and occasionally slept. The food was fabulous, and the experience was phenomenal. The creaking of the floor was enthralling on its own, like you could hear the footsteps of everyone who’s been there before . . .


The Real Victorian London

Our Thursday morning walking tour was by far the most informative. Our tour guide was able to paint a vivid image of what it was like to live on the Southside of London during the Victorian Era, while still being able to keep the novels that we read relevant. People living during this era were barely living at all so to speak. Little to no wages, horrific living conditions, diseases spreading at an alarming rate, massive control of jobs and housing, the list goes on.

What really struck me as the most shocking fact was that children had a 50% mortality rate up until the age of 5. Children also were depended upon for somehow bringing in food or anything worth money. The were the basis of their family’s survival. Some children were mudlarks which were people who would scavenge the River of Thames for anything that could possibly be worth money. Many would also wait until the night to go to the market (Boroughs) to search for food that may have been left behind after the market closed, being negligent to sanitariness. Also, even back then the market was gentrified, where the rich would come to pick up the best food.  In addition to what was previously mentioned, many of the children had jobs such as chimney sweeps and working in coal mines, where conditions were terrible and work days were long. IMG_5846This building speaks volumes as I feel it pays homage to the many courageous children who made a way for their families.

Finding housing during this time was definitely an uphill battle and when people found housing, they would likely be living in one room with about 15 other people. Just imagine how unsanitary it was to have all of those people living in the same room, with only cold water. The people living in this area were caught in a cycle of trying to make things better for themselves, IMG_5844but they never could make enough money to do so. They were stuck. There was better housing available. For example, across the street from one of the largest breweries at the time in London, there were better cottages available for let. Of course, there were stipulations for living in the luxurious cottages, such as: an individual had to be an employee of the brewery being that the brewery owned the cottages, an individual must attend church, an individual must be put to bed when told to by the supervisor of the building. The rules go on and on. If one of the rules were broken, said individual would be removed from the cottage.

The only answer to this extreme poverty was education. How could you teach as many children as possible for the cheapest amount of money? Have teachers volunteer. Children would be responsible to work during the day and go to school at night. At school they would receive a warm meal and would not be turned away if they wanted to stay through the night. The were taught how to read literature and basic arithmetic. Those who became too old, would either go on to become teachers to the younger children or their teachers would personally give them more books, so that individual could further his or her studies. Soon after the implementation of these school, William Forster implemented the an education act where it was forced that children 5-13 were to be in school.

Tying it all together
Charles Dickens perfectly captured the idea of what seemed to be the “eternal struggle” that many didn’t acknowledge or didn’t even know existed. Oliver Twist and Pip stood as a symbol for many young children of the Victorian Era. His descriptions of the thieves, the markets, the houses, the streets, all came alive when I roamed the streets on the tour. Dickens wanted the entire city of London know what was taking place and it needed to be fixed as soon as possible. Once he received recognition for his works, Dickens spent his time advocating for the poor, donating to charities, to see a better London. This tour was the most impactful. I was able to envision myself living during those times. Walking through those streets just did something to me. London has come a long way since then. I know Dickens would be proud of his city.




Poverty and Crime

(pictures are not fully loaded due to problems with wi-fi)

Thursday’s walking tour was by far the most informative and made the most connections to Dickens’ life and background. Our tour guide discussed topics varying from the conditions of poverty in the Victorian Era, the role of women, and where Dickens drew his inspirations from. Our first stop was near The River Thames and The Mudlark, located in front of the very bridge Dickens walked under to obtain ideas for Oliver Twist. This bridge, in fact was the bridge Oliver Twist’s encounters with Sikes took place in the novel. Our tour guide informed us that Dickens would sit on the steps connected to the bridge and observe the night time activities. Many wondered where Dickens obtained such vivid details in the descriptions of London’s Underworld in his novels and it was very rewarding to be able to visit the places he developed his ideas from. What’s even more interesting is that many people who read his novels wondered how he came up with ideas relating to the crime and poverty conditions of London. It makes me realize how divided the classes truly were. To the rich, Dickens must have seemed like he had a great imagination, but in actuality, he was recounting true events and encounters in his novels.

As we continued our tour, our guide spent some time discussing the conditions of women and children in The Victorian Era. Women often had no choice but to become sex workers. Children usually ended up in work houses or did horrible jobs like “pure picking.” which was picking up dog feces with bare hands, since there was no plastic, and selling it to collectors. These jobs often led to infections and disease since there were no proper sanitation methods available to the poor. Although the church thought they were helping, work houses seemed to make things even worse. As we read in Oliver Twist, children would often starve because they were barely being fed. In Morrison’s Child of The Jago, we can also see the effect of poverty and poor sanitation with the high mortality rates, especially in infants. Death happened so often that it became normal, which explains the lack of much emotion from Dicky Perrot’s parents about the death of his baby sister and their quick return to the pub. The church also did not do much for women. Instead of attempting to get women out of the situations they were in, they simply read The Bible to them. We look back at things like this and they make no sense to us, but this was truly what people believed would solve problems during the time period.


Our tour ended with a visit to Marshalsea Prison. This was the very prison that Charles Dickens’ father was sent to for debt in 1824. I was a little disappointed to find out that the wall had recently been cleaned. It would have been great to see the wall in its original, filthy state to get a better idea of what it looked like. This was another place that Dickens drew inspiration for a novel from. Although we did not read Dickens’ Little Dorrit, our tour guide gave us a brief overview. Little Dorrit’s father was a prisoner at Marshalsea, so she would come and go from the prison and sleep there. Unfortunately, one night the prison gates were closed as she returned and she had to seek shelter elsewhere. This story is another perfect example of the extent of poverty and the conditions children faced during the era. Dickens used the experiences and people he encountered to bring awareness to the social issues of his time.

The morning’s events ended with a walk back to Borough Market for some delicious food. Fortunately, we had the luxury of eating the food that was sold there, unlike the poor of The Victorian era, who would search for remnants in the late hours of the night.

A Brief Note About My Free Day

Today I traveled out to Oxford University and visited the Weston Library to view a manuscript tied to my thesis research. The Digby 41, fol. 2 contains Friar Daw’s Reply and Upland’s Rejoinder, two texts related to the early reform movement of Wyclif, the Wycliffites, and the Lollards. What makes this manuscript interesting is that Upland’s Rejoinder is written in the margins of Friar Daw’s Reply. I viewed, made notes, and took extensive photographs of the manuscript in order to conduct various examinations of paleography and codicology. Important aspects of FDR includes a theory of an interpolater who made corrections to the original hand, and that UR is written in two separate hands. Problems with the manuscript include damage, fading, reminding, and text in the margin along the binding being hidden. I have posted a few photos below to show the difficulties involved with these texts.


Class Division and the Philanthropic Minded

Thursday morning’s Victorian walking tour provided a thorough examination of class division and the philanthropic desires of individuals such as Charles Dickens and Octavia Hill. Our guide, Kim, situated us by the river Thames in order to describe the activities children performed along the mud-banks  in order to survive. The same area was a popular destination for Dickens to take nighttime walks: the steps by the mug house sign were along his path. This was also where Sikes arranged a trade for Oliver Twist and by the bridge where betrayal led to Nancy’s death. The mud-banks were no kind of beach or safe haven for young children; they scavenged for items along the river bank – through rubbish and sewage with no gloves – and often drowned in the toxic water. In Morrison’s Child of the Jago, Dicky Perrott steals gold and jewelry in order to get cake and tea. Morrison mentions the East End Mission where middle class missionaries seek to educate and civilize young children.

While one would expect the church to take a greater role in caring for the poor, they created work houses for the floods of poor people coming from the countryside. The conditions of workhouses were made so bad so people would choose to get other jobs, but the workhouse overflow caused a greater expense on the church and led to many people becoming disabled from various injuries. The conditions for the poor had little to no upside; though they sometimes worked in the Borough Market, they could not afford the expensive vegetables and meats sold there. The 19th century diet included bread, gruel, porridge, and maybe three herrings per week.

If the poor had any chance at survival, it was because sociological studies by Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth shed light on the horrible conditions and child eath rates. The poor seemed to have no where to seek help; the churches worsened conditions (quite ironically) and charities gave funds to families or individuals meeting strict requirements. Though some large companies such as Anchor Brewing offered jobs and housing, they held strict guidelines to get the most from their employees.

It was finally through the founding of board schools by such individual as Dickens and affordable housing, family services, and public libraries by Octavia Hill that began to turn life around for the lowest class of London. Without philanthropic measures such as the Peabody Trust, preservation attempts by the various individuals, the value the London City Council places on history, and the services by tour guides like Kim, valuable history would be lost and never recovered.

Victorian London Walking Tour

I set the tone for my day at around 9:30 a.m., when I missed the train the rest of the group was riding out from Earl’s Court station. I caught the next train, and it didn’t take too After the tour—which was excellent, and which I’ll get to shortly—I accidentally got separated from the group again in Borough Market, and spent the bulk of the rest of the afternoon taking wrong turns, walking down the wrong streets, getting off at the wrong tube stops, etc. This might sound like a complaint, like I had a frustrating experience, but on the contrary, it was a lovely day, full of unexpected moments (and, uhhm, a lot more exercise than I intended, since I had to double back so many times). I think getting lost can be productive.

I think of Debord’s ideas about the derive: once we’re unencumbered by any clear sense of where we are, where we’re going, etc., we can develop a stronger feeling for a city’s unique ambiance. Debord was writing about wandering around cities he was already familiar with, though, not simply getting lost in a new place. You can’t really defamiliarize a place you don’t know very well in the first place, obviously. I’m probably just making highfalutin theory references to distract from my own slight(-ish) embarrassment at getting lost. But I did have a good time, all the same.

The Victorian London walking tour this morning was wonderful. We started out near Southwark Cathedral, which was a beautiful building (and a useful landmark for catching up with the group after our initial separation). As with a few of the tours this week, there was so much to process that I’m having a bit of trouble sorting through it—but our guide made a point of connecting the sites we visited to Victorian-era literature, which made it a bit less overwhelming than some of the other tours we’ve gone on. (Not that the other tours’ overwhelming-ness was a bad thing, of course.)


The clearest impression from the tour was similar to the impression I get from reading Dickens and other 19th century writers: life was almost impossibly brutal for the poor in Victorian England. When she told us about William Gladstone’s approach toward dealing with the pervasive sex work in London’s poorer areas—taking sex workers aside, feeding them dinner, and reading Bible verses to them before putting them back out on the street—I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist. The idea that piety and propriety and good taste can overcome economic desperation was as ludicrous then as it is now. For people from the middle and upper classes, it was easy to think of sex work as a product of the workers’ own moral deficiency, not as a last resort to feed themselves and their families. To clarify: I’ve known people who were perfectly happy doing sex work because it’s what they wanted to be doing, and more power to them. But people should be able to make that choice for themselves, and most sex workers in Victorian London didn’t have any other opportunities. For the most part, they were forced to do work that put them at constant risk of infection, arrest, and death. That’s what makes it unconscionable. And bourgeois society’s reaction to that problem—a problem that was mostly a symptom of widespread poverty—was to assume the women involved were doing it out of, what, their own inherent “wickedness”?

It was also a haunting experience visiting the site of the Marshalsea prison in Southwark, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned for a few months in 1824. Debtors’ prisons were another bizarre, horrifyingly hypocritical product of economic inequality. Among other things, the debtors’ prison essentially punishes the poor for being poor, on top of making it harder to get out of debt. Like the workhouses, which took in people who were too weak or too sick to work “proper” jobs, only to thrust them into conditions that invariably made them weaker and sicker and more infirm, debtors’ prison just perpetuates and intensifies the cycle of economic oppression. It’s especially bizarre to me that we didn’t even really have the vocabulary to talk about these systemic problems until later. People can talk about Marx and Engels being misguided quixotic idealists all they want—though I would, um, disagree with that interpretation—but the fact that we’re even having conversations about Victorian poverty as a systemic problem illustrates the lasting potency of at least some of Marx’s ideas. Obviously there’s not anything wrong with the people who live in poverty. Poverty breeds poverty. Once you’re poor, it’s obscenely hard to stop being poor—and even then, that takes at least as much luck as effort. How was that not obvious from the start?

John Dickens was only able to get out of prison after such a short time because his mother died and he unexpectedly inherited a decent sum of money. It’s funny: I wonder if this experience gave Charles Dickens the idea for Pip’s mysterious inheritance in Great Expectations. It seems just as likely that the “mysterious benefactor” was just an easy plot device, a way to get Pip from one social stratum to another. But knowing Dickens’s autobiographical proclivities, it seems possible at least.