‘The Lady’s Newspaper, keen to plug a new shopping street, waxed lyrical: ‘the most loathsome of the haunts of vice and infamy … St. Giles converted into streets of palaces, is a transformation that outvies any in the marvel-abounding Arabian Nights’.’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The 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 26: New Oxford Street
One extreme approach to the sanitary problem posed by decrepit slum property was wholesale demolition. A prime example was the construction of New Oxford Street in the 1840s. The principal goal was to create a new, straight thoroughfare linking the West End to the City of London; but the fact that any such road would involve clearing parts of the infamous St. Giles slum (the district immediately south of the British Museum) provided an added incentive.
Thomas Donaldson, chairman of the Westminster Commission of Sewers, testified before a select committee as early as 1835 that a new street cutting through St. Giles ‘would relieve this neighbourhood from a very vile class of occupants’. It did not matter, he argued, that this had long been a ‘low’ district. The new street, with fine new buildings, would bring ‘a more respectable class of occupants’ and a domino effect would induce landlords in the surrounding roads to improve their property. A local resident, speaking before the same committee, confirmed the prevalence of filth, poverty, crime and disease, declaring St. Giles a source of dangerous miasma. He added, rather optimistically, that demolition would be for the slum-dwellers’ own good – they would retire to healthier parts of the metropolis and its suburbs. Others noted that a new road might clear ‘all the low brothels in Buckeridge Street, Bainbridge Street, Church Street and the adjoining rookery’.
Negotiations with existing landlords began in 1841. The level of compensation awarded by juries to freeholders and lessees, particularly shopkeepers, was higher than the government had hoped. Slum-dwellers were not keen to relocate – ‘in some of the houses, though the roofs have been taken off, they still remain’. Still, the street was finally opened in June 1845, with plate-glass-windowed shops on the ground floor of the new buildings on either side of broad thoroughfare. By the following year, these shops were ‘furnished with inviting wares and peopled with trim assistants’; and, by 1847, an entire new road through to Holborn was completed. The Illustrated London News remarked that the new street had ‘swept away the filth of St. Giles’s’ and possessed a ‘splendid appearance’. The Lady’s Newspaper, keen to plug a new shopping street, waxed lyrical: ‘the most loathsome of the haunts of vice and infamy … St. Giles converted into streets of palaces, is a transformation that outvies any in the marvel-abounding Arabian Nights’.
It soon became clear, however, that the ‘filth of St. Giles’ had been, as it were, only swept under the carpet. Half the original slum had been spared the sledgehammer, to keep costs down. The result was that Church Street, to the south, only yards from the Arabian delights of New Oxford Street, offered a marked contrast to its commercial neighbour: ‘a roadway strewn with every species of filth, the playground of children, covered with rags, and the loitering place of the idle and squalid’. The road had never been pleasant but many of the residents evicted during the clearance had simply moved next door into already foul and crowded houses. Twelve properties which contained 277 inhabitants in the 1841 census, were found to contain 463 in 1848. Rents, perversely, grew higher due to the competition for space, even as conditions grew worse. It was plain that slum clearance without rehousing was no solution to the problem of overcrowding and filth – it only shifted the misery elsewhere.
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.