Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 8

‘For many Victorians, the capital’s slums were not a source of misery but a profitable little investment.’

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Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against FilthThe Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?

Day 8: We Are Livin Like Piggs

As London agonised about the sanitary condition of its slums, the following letter was printed in The Times of 5 July 1849, spellings uncorrected.


Sur, May we beg and beseech your proteckshion and power, We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Willderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in much and filthe. We aint go no privix, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company, in Greek St., Soho Square, all great, rich and powerfool men, take no notice watsomedever of our cumplaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffur, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us.

Some gentlemans comed yesterday, and we thought they was comishoners from the Suer Company, but they was complaining of the noosance and stenchs our lanes and corts was to them in New Oxforde Street. they was much surprized to see the seller in No.12, Carrier St., in our lane, where a child was dyin from fever, and would not beleave that Sixty persons sleep in it every night. This here seller you couldent swing a cat in, and the rent is five shilling a week; but theare are greate many sich deare sellars. Sur, we hope you will let us have our cumplaints put into your influenshall paper, and make these landlords of our houses and these comishoners (the friends we spose of the landlords) make our houses decent for Christions to live in.
Preaye Sir, com and see us, for we are livin like piggs, and it aint faire we shoulde be so ill treted.
We are your respeckfull servents in Church Lane, Carrier St., and the other corts.
Tuesday Juley 3, 1849
John Scott; Emen Scott; Joseph Crosbie; Hanna Crosbie; Edward Copeman; Richard Harmer; John Barnes; William Austin; Elen Fitzgerald; William Whut; Ann Saundersen; Mark Manning; John Turner; William Dwyne; Mary Aiers; Donald Connell; Timothy Driscoll; Timothe Murphy; John O’Grady; John Dencey; John Crowley; Margret Steward; Bridget Towley; John Towley; Timothy Crowley; John Brown; …  [etc]

Was it a spontaneous cry from the weak and oppressed, or carefully orchestrated by a social reformer? In either case, it led to further investigation into the slums of St. Giles, and, later in the year, The Times published a breakdown of the ownership of the Church Lane properties. They belonged to highly respectable Victorians – including an aristocrat and colonel – and provided readers with an admirable lesson in slum economics:

… no less than 2850 persons crammed into 95 wretched houses, on 1 1/10th acre of ground. Sir John Hanmer is, we believe, the proprietor of these houses, and underlets them in batches, at the rate of about 20l. per house per annum, to lessees who sublet them singly at 35l. each to a third class of speculators, who again let out the single rooms at a further advance, to a fourth order of tenants, whose lucrative trade consists in a fifth subletting of the space, as nightly shelter, at 3d per head, to those wretched outcasts whom crime or misfortunate has reduced to the very lowest grade of the social scale …

The newspaper appealed to the better nature of the landlords – but there was little response. For many Victorians, the capital’s slums were not a source of misery but a profitable little investment.

You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.

Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.

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