When London Was Ankle Deep In Manure

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 19 months ago
When London Was Ankle Deep In Manure

Courtesy of journalist John Hollingshead, in these extracts from his book Ragged London, we take a peek into London's courtyards and hovels in 1861, finding cows off Regent Street, bird fanciers in Shoreditch, pigs in Notting Hill , and 'refuse' sausage makers in Clerkenwell.

Near Regent Street — land of 1,000 horses

Photo: psyxjaw

The inspector of nuisances is that rare workman, a man whose heart is in his work, and the poor regard him as a friend and adviser. Besides nuisances arising from over-crowding in ordinary dwellings, or courts and alleys, he has to deal with many troublesome animals. The district contains nearly four hundred stables, in which are kept more than one thousand horses. Over these stables are a number of small close rooms, in which about nine hundred people reside and bring up their families.

Another nuisance arises from cows, of which there are at least two hundred kept at eight stations in as many streets. I went into one liquorice-coloured den, where thirty-nine of these animals were standing with their faces against the wall, being milked. There was no light except a glimmer from one or two murky windows in the roof, and the whole place was ankle-deep in slush. Whether the milk supplied to the neighbourhood from this dark stable is an invigorating fluid or not, I leave the able officer of health to determine.

Smithfield — few thieves, lots of blood-worms

19th century Smithfield Market

Clerkenwell is a hard-working, operative district, especially in the interior, and contains few thieves except those that are bottled up in prison. A penal air is given to the neighbourhood by the Houses of Correction and Detention, but, with this exception, the population is patient, industrious, and honest. The watch and watchcase making trades form the chief occupation of the men, and the women and children work at artificial flower-making, mantle-making &c. for the City warehouses. In its upper portion — towards Pentonville— on the top of the mountain, are numbers of large private residences; and in the lower portion — down in the valley— the parish runs into Smithfield. Many French egg-merchants importing enormous quantities of these eatables, are scattered about the neighbourhood; and a place called Sharp's Alley was once famous for making common sausages of refuse meat, known in the slang of the district as 'blood-worms'.

Shoreditch — 'weasel like' children, and bird fanciers

Child apprentices in textile factory. The children supplement their scanty rations from the pig trough, 1840

Its children are ragged, sharp, weasel-like; brought up from the cradle — which is often an old box or an egg-chest — to hard living and habits of bodily activity. Its men are mainly poor dock labourers, poor costermongers, poorer silk-weavers clinging hopelessly to a withering handicraft, the lowest kind of thieves, the most ill-disguised class of swell-mobsmen [conmen], with a sprinkling of box and toy makers, shoe-makers, and cheap cabinet-makers. Its women are mainly hawkers, sempstresses, the coarsest order of prostitutes, and aged stall-keepers, who often sit at the street comers in old sedan-chairs, and sometimes die, like sentinels, at their posts.

On Sundays the whole neighbourhood is like a fair. Dirty men, in their sooty shirt-sleeves, are on the housetops, peeping out of little rough wooden structures built on the roof to keep their pigeons in. They suck their short pipes, fly their fancy birds, whistle shrilly with their forefingers placed in their mouths, beat the sides of the wooden building with a long stick, like a fishing-rod, and use all their ingenuity to snare their neighbours' stray birds. Long usage has settled the amount of redemption money which will buy back one of these captives.

The first court I go into with my guide is called "Reform Square" — a bitter satire upon its aspect and condition. It is nearly opposite the Church of St Philip, and is a square yard — not much larger than a full-sized dining-room. It contains half-a-dozen houses, which look out upon two dust-heaps, a pool of rain and sewage, mixed with rotten vegetable refuse, and a battered, lop-sided public privy. The houses are like doll's-houses. The windows are everywhere stuffed with paper -rags being in too much demand at the marine store-shop, or for the clothing of the human child-rats, who are digging into the dust-heaps, with muddy oyster-shells. Every child must have its toys; and at the back of Shoreditch they play with rusty old saucepans, pieces of broken china, stones torn out of the roadway, or cinders that they search for laboriously. Very often the boys have to mind babies, while their mothers are out at work, and they sit about upon doorsteps with dirty brown limp bundles that never look like young children.

Notting Hill — pig trainers and rat matches every Monday night

Most of the roads into it must be what are known as 'undedicated roads' — highways not yet adopted by the public, and, consequently, dedicated to nothing but rivers of mud. The inhabitants are pig-trainers and brickmakers, keepers of ducks and fowls, 'fanciers' of spurring game-cocks, and red-jawed bull-terriers, and supporters of the very lowest forms of sporting. The pot-houses advertise "Rat matches every Monday night," and the first sight I saw was that of two fowls which were combating in a dreary swamp of black manure-drainage, broken bottles, old bricks, and mud. The huts have grown a little the worse for wear, as all things do, and they hold together by some principle not yet discovered or laid down by theoretical builders. Refuse matter is still collected by the pig-trainers from club-houses and hotels, and boiled down in coppers, that the fat may be separated for sale. This business existed here long before the district rose around it, and the old inhabitants defend their right to the place, not only with legal parchments, but with energetic tongues. As a body they are happy and independent, and when sickness seizes one of them, a basin is carried round the huts, and a collection is made.

Waterloo — fat women and boa constrictors

Illustration from 1854, showing Paradise Row in Agar Town. Image: George Godwin in Wikicommons

Nestling immediately under the shadow of the large engineering premises of Messrs. Maudslay, Sons, and Field, is a reproduction of the worst features of a back settlement in Manchester, Bolton, or Birmingham. In no part of the overcrowded parish of Lambeth are there any streets more badly built, more neglected, or more hopelessly filthy and miserable than Jurston Street, Cooper Street, and their adjacent thoroughfares. Here is a sample of what a great manufactory may nourish — nearly always does nourish — under its lofty walls. Six and seven shillings a week are paid for dwarfed houses in and about this London Bolton, and this for the privilege of living within the sound of the factory bell — of being surrounded by dust-heaps in the streets, and fronted by a yard, called Owen's Yard, let out as a winter refuge for showmen's vans. Most of the regular inhabitants here are employed at the engineering works, and the showmen — the vagrants as they would be called, squatting for a shilling a week in their yellow smoking boxes upon wheels —look down upon these toiling householders with pity and contempt. They have let out their giants, their fat women, their dwarfs, their spotted boys, and boa constrictors, to different exhibitors about London, and they form a half-gipsy settlement in this public yard, free from bad drainage and overcrowded rooms.

Hollingshead (1827-1904) once worked for Charles Dickens and explored London’s slums for the Morning Post. These experiences he gathered in matter of fact style in his book. Understandably, he then left all that behind for a world of bright lights and ostrich feathers managing London theatres.

Last Updated 06 July 2017