“She was a very little woman, with the smallest bonnet I ever saw. It was, positively, nothing more than a black patch on the back of her head, and the frayed ends were pulled desperately forward towards her chin, showing her ears through a ragged trellis-work. As to her dress, it looked as if some cunning spinner had manufactured a textile fabric out of mud; or, as if dirt could be darned and patched. I did not see her feet; but I heard a flapping on the floor as she moved, and guessed what sort of shoes she must have worn. She was the sort of little woman who ought to have had a round, rosy, dumpling face - and she had two bead- like black eyes; but face and eyes were all crushed and battered by want and exposure. Her very skin was in rags. The poor little woman did nothing but make faces, which would have been ludicrous, if - in the connection of what surrounded and covered her, and her own valiant determination not to cry - they had not been heartrending.
Description of a resident of Whitecross Street
George Augustus Sala: “Houseless and Hungry” (1859)
Whitecross Street today lies dotted with upmarket boutiques. However, the street was once notorious for the misery that dwelled within the cramped and filthy slum houses that festered around the centre of old London.
As the population of the country increased in the 19th Century, living conditions for the poor began to decrease in the city. London, being an economically minded city, never seems to have much space for those without means within the bounds of the City, but the situation for the poor in the Victorian era rapidly became almost unbearable. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing by the early 18th Century, and many workers were travelling to London to work in the docks which had become the centre of trade in the world. The potato blight had struck Ireland, resulting in a huge influx of desperate Irish immigrants to areas like St. Giles and Spitalfields. Additionally, the building of the railroads in the 1830s had displaced thousands, resulting in a rush towards the city. London’s population exploded.
With no welfare system in place, unscrupulous landlords began converting their buildings into what became known as ‘rookeries’. These rookeries would house the poorest that London would have to offer for a pittance every night. Whitecross Street, which, prior to this population explosion was regarded as a relatively middle-class area became dotted with them. Charles Booth’s infamous map of London recorded the poverty levels of each area of Central London as a colour code – Whitecross Street’s housing ranged from purple: “Mixed. Some comfortable others poor.” right the way to black: “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”
Researching the street in the archives of the Old Bailey reveals a myriad of violent crime and robbery over the years. Drunken stabbings over some imagined slight were a regular feature of the street for a few hundred years. Violence against women was common;
“I saw the Prisoner at the Bar throw a Piece of Brick at his Wife. - She asked him to go and carry Malt at the Peacock Brewhouse, he would not go; but taking up a Piece of Brick, said if she was not easy, he would throw the Brick at her, which he did; and then said he would throw another if she did not get away; she said a good while unconcerned, but at Length the Neighbours got her away. The Brick was almost as big as my Fist. - He stood five or six Yards from her; he bid her get away several Times, yet she would not go, and then he threw it at her with his Left Hand, it hit her pretty hard on the Head”
“He said, Damn your Blood, I will knock your Brains out if you do not get away. I will speak the Truth, for we must all appear before one Tribunal Judge, to be sure; he said afterwards, God damn your Eyes and limbs, if I have not kill'd you, I will kill you, and to be hanged for it I do not value it.”
Evidence from the trial William Shaw for murder on Whitecross Street
There are records of numerous violent and disturbing incidents over the years, ranging from the body of an unidentified toddler found half buried in a privy, to naked bare-knuckle boxing in the street. These were violent times, and these were desperate people.
Life became harsh, inhospitable and desperate very quickly. A prospective tenant in one of the Whitecross Street slums would be expected to sleep in a shared bed or pile of straw with numerous other residents. There were some regulations on what standards a slumlord was permitted to keep his building in, but they were essentially unenforceable and therefore ignored. It was not unheard of for 20 or 30 people to be crammed into a small room, sleeping wherever there was space on the floor. Naturally, in unhygienic conditions like this, disease was endemic. As well as the fetid stench of their fellow inhabitants, residents at a rookery had rats and fleas to look forward to. Contagion spread rapidly, and the average life expectancy on the streets of London was around 37 (1841 figure).
A large amount of people in Victorian society turned their backs on their fellow citizens, ashamed or disgusted by the manner in which they were forced to live. Pamphlets such as a “the Jolly Beggar” put forward the notion that many of the homeless population of London were faking their misery in order to elicit sympathy and money from those gullible enough to provide it. Some even denied that there was a problem at all;
“How can there be any destitution with your outdoor relief, and your in-door relief, your workhouse test, relieving officers, and your casual ward? Besides, there is employment for all. There are hospitals and infirmaries for the sick, workhouse infirmaries for the infirm. Prosperity, the war notwithstanding, is continually increasing. None but the idle and the dissolute need be houseless and hungry. If they are, they have the union to apply to; and, consequently, asylums for the houseless serve no beneficial end; divert the stream of charitable donations from its legitimate channels; foster idleness and vice, and parade, before the eyes of the public, a misery that does not exist.”
A sceptical view of London poverty (as told to the author)
George Augustus Sala, Gaslight and Daylight, 1859
Life for children was particularly tough. Half the burials in London in 1839 were for children under 10, and the period is infamous for the vivid descriptions of life in London’s workhouses by Dickens. A Whitecross Street child here gives his own account of his life in the street, as interviewed by James Greenwood in 1874:
"I am nine and a half," said he, "and I lives in Playhouse Yard, in Whitecross Street. It ain't a house, at least it ain't a house what you goes in-doors to, with tables and chairs and that, and a fire. … It’s a baker’s barrer, one of them with a lid. The baker lets me sleep there, and I watches out for the cats."
"For the cats?"
"It's down a yard with gates to it where the barrer is and the baker he keeps breeding ducks and pigeons there and the cats come and nail 'em o' nights, and when I hears em I gives the lid of the barrer a histe, and down it comes with a whack, and they are off like a shot."
"Are your parents alive ?" I asked him.
"I ain't got no mother, I've got a father; I sees him sometimes. He don't live up my way, he goes to fairs and that. I ain't got no brothers. I've got a sister she's in the hospital. She used to work up Mile End I way, at the lucifer factory, till she got the canker making of em. She's been in the hospital this ever so long. That's why I don't sell 'lights.' I can t bear the sight of em. I'm on my own hands. I earns all I gets. I've been adoin' it ever since she was took to the hospital."
"Are you ever ill ?"
"I haint been ill a long time, not since the middle o' summer, when I had the measles. No, I didn t sleep in the baker's barrer then. I didn't know him. I knowed a pipemaker, and he let me lay in his shed, and his missus was werry kind to me. I do werry well. I hardly ever goes without grub. Yes, sometimes I wears boots. I ain't had none since the last boat-race day, Cambridge and Oxford, and I lost one on 'em turning cat'n wheels behind a carriage."
"Were you ever in trouble?"
"I never was locked up; cert'ny not. Don't I think I should be better off in the workus? No, I don't want to be shut up anywheres. I am all right. I don't want nobody to be a-looking arter me like that, thanky all the same, mister."
"Can you read?"
"No, I can't read, nor write neither; I never was in a school. Never was in a church. I don't like to be shut up anywhere. I'd a jolly sight rather go on as I'm a goin.'"
James Greenwood: “In Strange Company”, (1874)
A life for a child being brought up ‘on the stones’ was fraught with hazards, they had to grow up fast to survive in this world.
Fortunately there was some semblance of a culture of philanthropy in Victorian London. The alms-house constructed on the orders of Henry V in the 15th century was the precursor of ‘The Asylum of the Society for Affording Nightly Shelter to the Houseless’ which opened at around the mid 1820s. This society described itself as providing “nightly shelter and assistance to those who are really houseless and destitute during inclement winter seasons, and the occasional suspension of out-door work, in consequence of the rigour of the weather.”
This help consisted of bread, warm shelter and a place to sleep. For those whose only option was a night on a freezing London street, this place would have seemed like some small kind of heaven. In cases of sickness and exhaustion, the shelter provided gruel, wine, brandy, soup and medicine, all administered under medical supervision. The shelter comments; “many have been thus rescued from the grasp of death”.
Given the inviting services provided, it can be taken that these facilities were near constantly full, with the poor clamouring to get inside. Friedrich Engels comments in the “Condition of the Working Class in England” that “the number of applicants in ... the asylum of Whitecross Street, was strongly on the increase, and a crowd of the homeless had to be sent away every night for want of room.”
A tradition of philanthropy still exists along Whitecross Street. There are charities that support the LGBT community, Ethnic Minority widows and the headquarters of ‘UnLtd’, an organisation that helps fund ‘social entrepreneurs’ – people who want to improve their local communities. Also, a few doors down from the North end of the street the headquarters of the homeless charity Shelter is based – which brings a nice continuity to the area as it fulfils a modern version of the function of Henry V’s almshouse.
Another notable institution present on Whitecross Street is the large estate run by the Peabody Trust. In 1862 George Peabody, widely acknowledged as the father of modern philanthropy established an institution that would provide what he defined as “a good home, a place that is safe, warm, clean, light, well maintained and evokes personal pride”; he promoted “a strong feeling of belonging” as “active involvement in the neighbourhood and the spirit of togetherness and friendliness that goes with it”.
The Whitecross Street buildings were built in the 1880s, and though like most of the street they suffered bomb damage during the Blitz many of the original buildings stand to this day. It has been noted that these buildings did not cater towards the desperately poor – they were designed to accommodate low-paid city and service workers, so large numbers of people were displaced during the construction of the buildings thus contributing to the gentrification of the street. In modern times the Peabody estate does excellent work in housing those that need a roof above their head but have nowhere else to turn to.
It is somewhat reassuring that despite the degradation that the street has subjected its inhabitants to over time, that it has nurtured a strong charitable side also. If the local history were just pain, bloodshed and murder it is doubtful the street would be looking as upbeat as it does at the moment. As it stands, the work carried out by many of the Victorian philanthropists still benefits residents of the street to this day, and for that we can be thankful.
Concluded in Part 6