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

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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.

Children
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.

Housing
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.

Education
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.

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Poverty and Crime

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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.

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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.

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.)

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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.

Victorian London and its Literature

A topic I keep coming back to when thinking about the Victorian period is that the wealthy and middle class saw the lower classes as inferior, lazy, and even wicked. That they were poor because of those traits and those traits made them poor, which is, of course, circular. We see this judgement numerous time in Oliver Twist, for example when the judge is convicting Oliver of being a thief because his shabby clothes make him look like one. Likewise, in A Child of the Jago, none of the merchants want to hire Dickie even when the Parson vouches for him. When he finally is hired, the merchant easily believes the lies told about Dickie–because they fit his interpretation of what Dickie should be like.

Among these preconceptions about the poor that seems like an obvious lack of observation, which was brought into great detail in our tour today, was about the poor being considered lazy. Our guide explained several things that proved the preconception wrong. First, they barely had food. They had bread and tea, and maybe a few herring to share for a whole week. Thus, they were malnourished. Second, the poor lived in areas that were highly unsanitary. They had no soap, so when they tried to clean their hands, they were more than likely actually spreading disease and bacteria, which would make them constantly sick if not worse. Third, though this list couldn’t dare to be considered exhaustive, they were sleeping ten to fifteen people in a room. No one could sleep well in those conditions. Thus, they weren’t lazy; they were hungry, sick, and tired, which may show outwardly as laziness, but a generous person might consider another’s situation before judging them. Unfortunately, that rarely happened.

Another topic that hit close today was education. The guide took us to a building that used to be a school in a poor neighborhood. This made me think of a few things. First, Dickens was educated, and that education brought him great unhappiness while working in the blacking factory, since all the other boys would bully him over it. Yet, he didn’t think less of the education. I believe the guide said, unless I’m just projecting this, that Dickens was an advocate for education reform, to bring more education to impoverished areas. Second, it’s the availability of education, and the ability of children to take advantage of that education that determines those children’s’ future. You can’t just have a school, you need to make sure the children are actually going to the school and not made to work instead in order for them to get the education. Unfortunately, as we still see today, there is no guarantee that someone will be able to lift themselves out of poverty, even with more resources available. It usually takes several generations to achieve that movement. And, also unfortunately, there have always been those in power, with massive wealth, who do want to see the so-called lower classes rise up, as it threatens their standing.

The play I saw tonight, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, besides being a parody of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is also a criticism of both capitalism and communism. I don’t have a direct connection to make, but it’s pretty obvious that the themes of wealth and poverty aren’t going away. The divide between rich a poor is growing every day, and that can’t be acceptable to anyone. Dickens, Morrison, and Levy–they documented the difficult living conditions of their time, and how people suffered. Just because we don’t see that suffering in East London doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. There’s money to cover London with skyscrapers, but what about Bangladesh, London’s former colony? It might be further than across the Thames, but maybe we should all consider this quote (I saw it on a building during the tour):”Nothing for myself that is not also for others.”

 

 

 

London Town

I am convinced; London is the best city. Never have I ever been to a city with the perfect blend of historical information and new age experiences readily available. The Westminster Abbey was by far the grandest church I have been stepped foot into. The architecture, the tombs, the events hosted within the church all hold a key place in London’s history. I really appreciated the Westminster Abbey, not for it’s gorgeous structure, but it’s philosophy and dedication to commemorate leaders of movements such as Dr. Matin Luther King Jr., kings such as Henry VIII and even the greatest writers and poets throughout the centuries. What really surprised me was that many of these people were buried right beneath the ground we were walking on. The only part about the Westminster Abbey, I didn’t like was…

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Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is it’s bird poop.

The sightseeing of the city seems to be never ending, after finally seeing Big  Ben I thought I’ve seen it all. I was definitely wrong. St. James’s Park has to be one of the most solaceful parks in the world. I’m convinced. The park was filled with the happiest people I’ve seen which were accompanied by a breathtaking landscape.

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Shortly after leaving the park, I headed to Oxford Street for a couple hours, and man o’ man, the stores that lined the street were some of the best I’ve seen in the same area. I always  find myself having to shop online while in Atlanta or going to one specific store in a mall, but Oxford Street had it all; from luxury clothing to streetwear.

Ending the night at the Spaghetti House (not the Mint leaf as planned) and Much Ado About Nothing was the perfect way to end the night. The food I got was phenomenal, the show was hilarious. Who could ask for a better conclusion to a day filled of walking through the city?

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Westminster Abbey and the British Museum

Westminster Abbey is a stunningly beautiful place. I don’t know how to put this without sounding stupid and quasi-mystical, but I’m always struck by the “aura” surrounding really old places and things: the sense that, Wow, this is where Edward the Confessor/Mary, Queen of Scots/Geoffrey Chaucer/etc. are buried. It’s a facile and simplistic reaction, maybe, but a place like Westminster Abbey is genuinely awe-inspiring. People designed and built the earliest version of this church nearly a thousand years ago, and it’s still here. If there’s a clearer example of the aura Walter Benjamin discussed in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” I can’t think of what it might be. You can’t mechanically reproduce the experience of walking around Westminster Abbey. You can’t build a sufficiently convincing replica of a place like this (though, given Las Vegas casinos’ proclivities toward hollow simulacra of international landmarks, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some mobbed-up billionaires had thought about it at some point). You can’t…well, I guess you can sell phony relics, as people evidently did all the time in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. But it’s not the same thing. Maybe that feeling isn’t intrinsic to the place itself; maybe it’s something I’m projecting onto it. But it’s still there.

I will admit to feeling a certain sense of schadenfreude upon hearing about Oliver Cromwell’s disinterment. Cromwell is…well, obviously he’s a vitally important figure in English history—and in global history, really, as an early instance of a successful anti-monarchist revolutionary. But most of my ancestry is Irish and Scottish Catholic, and—ah, he wasn’t very fond of Catholics, to put it mildly. I’m not a royalist at all. I have a typically American sense of bemusement at the idea of monarchy. But to my knowledge, none of the British monarchs engaged in brutal and intentional ethnic cleansing campaigns in Ireland (though some were…indifferent in ways that still caused ample death and destruction, regardless of intent). So yeah, this is a pointlessly cruel way of thinking, but I guess it’s hard not to see a certain poetic irony in hearing a brutal theocratic dictator posthumously taken down a couple of pegs, especially in that particular way.

During the afternoon off, I spent a couple of hours at the British Museum. I should have given myself more time, frankly, and I’m already considering going back this afternoon or tomorrow to cover some of the areas I missed. A few broad highlights so far have included the huge series of ancient Assyrian palace reliefs, remnants from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus—I mean, talk about historical aura—the Egyptian exhibit, and the artifacts from ancient and medieval Britain. The Sutton Hoo exhibit was fascinating. I always worry about my interest in ancient and medieval Europe: it’s a little D&D/Conan, maybe. But come on. Look at this stuff. It’s just so cool.

One more totally inconsequential thing: I got a couple of odd pictures of Pikachu dancing in the shadow of David Plinth’s Really Good thumbs’ up sculpture in Trafalgar Square. It struck me as sort of an unnerving tableau, like something out of The Wicker Man, or an urbanized version of Leatherface’s famous chainsaw dance from the end of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You can’t convince me there’s a person inside that Pikachu costume. You can’t.