There is no place in any era more evocative of soot, steam, gruel, and misery than Victorian London. It is one of the great landscapes of the imagination. This is probably because the mid-century London we know best is the literary London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, a teeming metropolis plagued by poverty and grime and peopled by the likes of Tiny Tim and Laura Fairlie. This vision of the city—all squalor and desperation—seems almost melodramatic, as if ripped from the pages of a penny dreadful.
The alarming tone isn’t particularly surprising, given the actual state of London at the time. For Dickens’s fictions were very much rooted in reality: beggars, orphans, and scatter-rats crowded its filthy streets by day, eking out miserable livings (that is, when there were ekings to be had) to take back to mean quarters. Immigrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland or the lack of work in rural counties came in great number hoping to find jobs, only to add further surplus to a labor pool that already outstripped demand. They came and they never left—there was nowhere else to go. People made do, but there is a reason that the time is remembered as the Hungry Forties. The streets were not a fertile soil.
There are moments at which certain forms of inequity become intolerable to societies; the Victorian era was one such moment. A quick survey of the major issues that dominated English political life from 1815 to 1870 reveals a nation anxious about the consequences of modernization upon its least fortunate members—and aware of the fact that this class of people appeared to be increasing in number. The idealistic spirit of the newly enfranchised middle classes, coupled with the rise of a vocal mass labor movement, eventually led to widespread reform in almost all spheres of public life: in the composition of the electorate, in government-mandated education, in labor laws, in public health, in public safety, and in much else. Queen Victoria did not exchange all of the bricks in London for marble, but, by 1900, it was no longer an act of suicide to drink the water.
One of the great, all-too-neglected artifacts of the era’s reformist zeal is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a far-ranging, four-volume illustrated catalogue of the city’s underclass, largely drawn from the words of the study’s subjects themselves. Mayhew’s “cyclopædia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work” is an unmatched, if idiosyncratic, record of a country getting to know itself. The interviews and accounts contained in it depict the clamor and bustle, the liveliness and sorrow, of lower-class London life, as in this passage describing a workingmen’s market:
Here, alongside the road, are some half-dozen headless tailors’ dummies, dressed in Chesterfields and fustian jackets, each labelled, “Look at the prices,” or “Observe the quality.” After this is a butcher’s shop, crimson and white with meat piled up to the first-floor, in front of which the butcher himself, in his blue coat, walks up and down, sharpening his knife on the steel that hangs to his waist. A little further on stands the clean family, begging; the father with his head down as if in shame, and a box of lucifers held forth in his hand. . . . This stall is green and white with bunches of turnips—that red with apples, the next yellow with onions, and another purple with pickling cabbages. One minute you pass a man with an umbrella turned inside up and full of prints; the next, you hear one with a peepshow of Mazeppa, and Paul Jones the pirate, describing the pictures to the boys looking in at the little round windows. Then is heard the sharp snap of the percussion-cap from the crowd of lads firing at the target for nuts; and the moment afterwards, you see either a black man half-clad in white, and shivering in the cold with tracts in his hand, or else you hear the sounds of musk from “Frazier’s Circus,” on the other side of the road, and the man outside the door of the penny concert, beseeching you to “Be in time—be in time!” as Mr. Somebody is just about to sing his favourite song of the “Knife Grinder.” Such, indeed, is the riot, the struggle, and the scramble for a living, that the confusion and uproar of the New-cut on Saturday night have a bewildering and saddening effect upon the thoughtful mind.