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.