Victorian London boomed thanks to a growing Empire and increased trade, but not everyone benefited from the riches. Wealthy land owners and, later on, industrialists became wealthier while ordinary people faced terrible working and living conditions. Country dwellers, who flooded into cities including London in search of employment, were forced to sleep in cramped spaces. And as the supply of willing workers rarely matched the numbers demanded, many saw their conditions deteriorate even further and some quite literally starved to death.
Statistics from the Victorian period are telling. Between 1800 and 1850 the population of England doubled, a figure greatly boosted by the arrival in English cities of Irish immigrants fleeing famine back home. At the same time, there was a major swing towards urban living as more people became attracted to work in factories. In 1801 70% of the population lived in the countryside, while 50 years later it had dropped to 49%. For London specifically, the population grew from 1m in 1801 to 4.5m in 1881. Britain’s city infrastructures struggled to cope with the sudden influx of people.
We know a lot about this period thanks to a number of journalists and other writers, many with religious backgrounds, who described the minute detail that urban dwellers faced. Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, along with the Morning Chronicle newspaper, were just some of those that wrote about the plight of the poor. For many, their accounts into this unknown world were written as if they were travelling to some foreign land miles away from home.
Perhaps less well known is the Rev Thomas Beames who in 1852 published a book called The Rookeries of London outlining six districts in London where he found a desperate underclass struggling to make ends meet. Today we’d describe these areas as slums, but in the early 19th century this term was little used. Rookery, the word used, by Beames was much more common for describing overcrowded living conditions who drew parallels “between these pauper colonies and the nests of the birds from whom they take their name”:
“Other birds are broken up into separate families – occupy separate nests; rooks seem to know no such distinction. So it is with the class whose dwellings we are to describe. We must speak of the dwellings of the poor in crowded cities, where large masses of men are brought together; where, by the unwritten laws of competition, rents rise and room is economised in proportion; where, because there is no restraint to check the progress of avarice, no statute to make men do their duty, they turn to profit the necessities of their fellow-creatures, and riot on the unhallowed gains which injustice has amassed at the expense of the poor.”
Over the course of six blogs, I’m visiting the six places where Beames described Rookeries. I want to find out what these slums were like. What conditions did their inhabitants suffer? And what have become of the areas today?