Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 28

‘In the previous arrangement, no-one cared how many friends and family shared a room – nor even pigs. The cost of accommodation for any given individual, therefore, was substantially increased by the scheme’.

jackson-blog-click thruThroughout 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 28: Spread Eagle Court 

The work of the London Fever Hospital in the early 1800s revealed the sanitary condition of some of the worst slums in London – and the difficulty of ridding such places of dirt and disease. Spread Eagle Court, Holborn, was typical: a place which continually provided the hospital with new cases of fever, seemingly impervious to ‘repeated use of Nitrous Fumigation and Whitewashing’. It consisted of a long, dead-end courtyard, surrounded by old four-storey houses on all sides, accessed via a narrow entry between two shops. Throughout the first half of the century, the court remained both filthy and notorious for criminality. In the cholera of 1831/32, it was described as ‘chiefly occupied by the lowest description of Irish people … a complete nuisance, and dangerous to the health of society’. Occasionally the violent antics of its denizens made the national press:

Two sisters, Honora and Eliza Foley, loose girls, who carry about fruit for sale, reside together in a disreputable way in Spread Eagle-court, with a fellow named O’Connell. On Wednesday they contrived to extract a sovereign from a man’s pocket, when a dispute occurred as to the sharing of it between the three; a quarrel ensued, in consequence of Eliza Foley refusing to divide it, and a battle took place, in which knives, pokers, sticks and other weapons were used.

Sanitary inquiries in the 1840s noted that pigs were kept in the houses – a commonplace practice amongst the Irish poor, an investment which could be fattened, then sold or slaughtered.

Fatefully, however, during the cholera year of 1848/49, Spread Eagle Court would come to the notice of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classses. The SICLC’s philanthropic mission was to build improved ‘model’ housing for the poor. The obscure court in Holborn looked like an ideal candidate for a new project – reforming existing slum buildings into places fit for working families. An existing landlord had already renamed the site as ‘Tyndall’s Buildings’ – presumably hoping to slough off its dire reputation – but done nothing to improve living conditions. The intervention of the SICLC offered the hope of real change.

Investigation showed that, although the street’s problems were long-standing, things had gone from bad to worse during the previous decade. In 1841, the court lodged roughly 120 men of working age. By 1851, there were more like 200 men, largely Irish labourers, many of whom had doubtless fled the Great Famine – not to mention, of course, women and children. Basements contained foetid refuse of every variety – ‘ashes, rubbish, human faeces and offal of various kinds in great quantities’. The architect Henry Roberts, asked by the SICLC to look at how the court might be improved and remodelled, found himself almost incapable of stomaching the smell: ‘returning home, I was, to use an expressive vulgarism, “as sick as a dog”.’ If the SICLC could reform such a place, then it could reform anywhere.

The physical side of the remodelling was a success. Water-closets, dustbins, properly ventilated rooms – all the features which created ‘sanitary’ accommodation were present and correct. The social aspect, however, was another matter. The old inhabitants of Tyndall’s Buildings ‘did not care about changing, neither did they like to have much inquiry made’. They had not been consulted about improving their dilapidated dwellings; and they did not wish to pay the SICLC’s price for improvement, in order to move back in.

Partly this was a question of money. Whilst single rooms in the new buildings could be had for a range of prices comparable to the old, this equivalence was somewhat misleading. In the previous arrangement, no-one cared how many friends and family shared a room – nor even pigs. The cost of accommodation for any given individual, therefore, was substantially increased by the scheme. There was also another unwelcome price to pay – conformity. The rules in SICLC accommodation were designed to enforce almost military order:

‘… no one will be allowed to remain on the lobbies or landing, or on the staircases at night. They must keep their rooms clean, and well-scrubbed once a week at least. They must keep their windows clean …. The stairs and landings must be scrubbed and washed down at least once a week; and the water-closets and galleries must be kept quite clean by the tenants in turn … no persons will make their beds on the floor; nor will drunken and disorderly conduct be allowed, nor card playing nor gambling of any kind. The penalty for infringement of these rules is instant dismissal.

Unsurprisingly, the ramshackle band of casual labourers and criminals who occupied the site were not inclined to remain. They would be replaced by more respectable artisan members of the working classes.

This was a typical outcome of ‘model housing’ projects by the SICLC and other charities, which were based on the principle of ‘5% philanthropy’ – making a capped  5% return for ethically-minded investors. The poorest in society simply could not afford the philanthropists’ rents. The net result, therefore, was the same as outright slum clearance. The dispossessed looked for the cheapest, nearest accommodation offered by local slum landlords – and the overcrowding and filth was only intensified.

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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