White Noise
Made in White City

London's Victorian Slums:
The Making of the Myth

Slums, murders, poverty: just what is it that brings culture back, again and again, to London's Victorian slums? As Helen O'Hara finds, "darkness draws our attention in a way that pity never does." She discusses the making of the myth – and the enormous industry – around London's historic poor. 

WORDS – Helen O'Hara

“The peculiar character of these streets... by no means tends to decrease the bewilderment in which the unexperienced wayfarer... finds himself involved. He traverses streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels."

Charles Dickens' description of a 19th-century London slum in one of his first published works, Sketches By Boz, set a template for depictions ever since. From contemporary penny dreadfuls to, well, Sky’s Penny Dreadful, the darkness of Victorian London has exerted a disproportionate pull on our collective imagination. The iconic Swinging ‘60s or Roaring ‘20s may be closer in time, but they are the subject of far fewer modern tales. There’s something endlessly magnetic about the combination of gaslight, top hats and murder. Just last week saw the release of The Limehouse Golem, with Bill Nighy and Douglas Booth starring in another Gothic tale of the terrifying killers that once lurked in London’s fog-drowned streets.

Scenes from The Limehouse Golem.

“It’s part of our collective unconscious,” claims Kim Newman, the London-born author of a string of books, plays and graphic novels set in the Victorian city, among them Anno Dracula and The Hound of the D’Urbervilles. “American TV shows still sometimes cut to modern London with fog, because they just have the idea that London ought to look like that.” The sight of a foggy Victorian street in a modern TV show inevitably means that someone is about to be attacked, whether it’s by a criminal gang, a serial killer or some sort of Gothic monster. 

The era's fictional monsters seem born to stand alongside the real killers of those times. Even now, at 7pm and 7.30pm every night, two Jack the Ripper walking tours leave from Aldgate East. Two more start from Tower Hill. All four rival groups, each containing scores of foot-sore tourists and led by a Ripperologist armed with gory details of the killings, travel a winding route around back lanes, and former murder sites, like Gunthorpe Street and Durward Street. Sometimes several groups will cluster at the same location, especially in Mitre Court where fourth victim Catherine Eddowes was found. You can watch tourists strain to hear their own guide over the one across the court, the rustle of umbrellas, and the bored teenagers giggling at the back. The lives of the five innocent, poor women are sometimes discussed, but the emphasis is always on the man who chose to end their lives. The darkness draws our attention in a way that pity never did. You’ll also see visitors unconsciously drawing closer together as darkness falls and the streets quiet. The area may be largely prosperous and even fashionable now, but echoes of the past linger.

The name of these slums, "the rookeries", came from a slang term for theft or cheating, and compared the image of a noisy, overcrowded and rather squalid home to chattering, vicious-looking birds. Yet the slums familiar from TV’s Ripper Street, Taboo and the rest of these modern adaptations existed for less than a century, and not just in East London. Westminster, Soho, Holborn and St Giles were also notorious (White Noise readers may be glad to know that White City remained pleasantly rural).

From the year 1800, London’s population exploded, reaching 4 million by the 1890s, and its housing stock never kept pace. What social housing existed saw three or four families sharing a single room, and buildings that had stood since the Great Fire were carved up and hollowed out, with shacks thrown up in former gardens and additional storeys crammed on rooftops. In these over-crowded, under-planned conditions poverty ran rampant, and vice and crime followed in its wake. Tens of thousands of women turned to prostitution to survive, and publications like Swell’s Night Guide listed brothels and likely spots for the men in search of them.

Perversely, this grim under-city was an attraction even in its own time. Respectable members of Victorian society would be escorted around the worst parts of Whitechapel or Seven Dials by social reformers keen to raise money and improve conditions, while less respectable Victorians patronised the music halls, brothels and pubs in even the worst parts of town. The problems of the slums thereby became obvious to high society, and at least a portion were slowly convinced that the poor were not merely lazy or evil, but facing the impossibility of finding better lives, leading directly to the great social reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Among those contemporary sightseers were writers, and it’s their accounts that perhaps best explain the long echoes of the period. Dickens’ mid-century London was often cheery and middle class, but he had known real deprivation in his early life and when he turned to the poor, he did so with gusto. Great Expectations and Oliver Twist trade heavily on London’s criminal underbelly, but it’s in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his unfinished final novel, that he truly embraces the darkness of the East End, talking about opium dens, “rat-ridden doorkeepers,” and murder.

Charles Dickens Little DorritIllustrations accompanying Charles Dicken's Little Dorrit.

“It’s almost impossible to go a day [in London] without passing something that Dickens wrote about or that was inspired by Dickens,” notes Newman. “Dickens’ characterisation is very close to Shakespeare when he’s writing about poor people, rustic people. Dickens had no interest in royalty. Rich people in his books are all horrible and remote. Even A Tale Of Two Cities, which is about a revolution, isn’t about Robespierre; it’s about surviving it.”

Yet the role of fiction in shaping our perception of the era has resulted in odd distortions. The shadow of the Ripper leads us to perhaps overestimate the slums’ dangers and depravity, and even smaller exaggerations have had their effect. “All those Victorian stories about opium dens: there was only one,” says Newman. “Dickens and [Sherlock Holmes author Arthur] Conan Doyle visited the same place,” a single establishment run by Ah Sing. But the power of their stories blurred fiction into fact and became part of collective image of the city. So The Limehouse Golem also features such a den, as does Dan Simmons’ book Drood, Penny Dreadful and the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell. A visit to the opium den signals a character’s ennui with Victorian respectability, and probably some long-ago trauma that they seek to escape.

Gustave Dore over london by rail

Gustave Dore Seven Dials
Over London – by Rail (above) and Dudley Street, Seven Dials by Gustave Doré. Doré's work was controversial at the time for showing only the extremes of society.

Literary tales mixed with existing penny dreadfuls, lurid newspaper reports and urban legends like Sweeney Todd and Madame Tussaud’s Chamber Of Horrors to form our vision of grim, dark London, even as the government was working to clean up the streets. The Victorian era was marked by a dynamic, thrusting conviction that the world could be perfected by men with large whiskers, who saw the slums as just another challenge to meet. London was becoming a modern marvel, and its darker corners could not be permitted to undermine that. So roads and railways were driven through the worst areas, displacing almost 50,000 people but erasing those narrow streets and tottering shacks. This sense of inequality and gentrification, too, may help explain the era’s resonance for modern viewers.

But however the authorities sought to spread their enlightenment, the legend gripped tighter. Author Arthur Morrison coined the term “Mean Streets” for an 1894 collection Tales of Mean Streets and wrote the smash A Child Of The Jago about East London crime in 1896. American writer Jack London visited in 1902 and was still horrified by the deprivation, writing in People of the Abyss, “From the slimy sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and they were eating them! In such conditions the outlook for the children is hopeless.” The worst slums would not be entirely erased until after World War II, and by then the legend was firmly established.

Nor does this fog-shrouded, vanished city of violence and vice show any sign of releasing its grip on our imaginations, however many shiny new apartment buildings and artisan bakeries replace its dark alleyways. Call it a testament to the depth and colour of London’s history, or to its literary giants, but we seem to take a perverse pride in London’s murky, murderous past.

Photo at top: retroimages / iStock.

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