Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sarah Wise - The Blackest Streets, The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum

The East End of London has had more than its share of historians. This shouldn't surprising as it was the centre of some of the most important industries to the British Empire – in particular its docks. But the rich diversity of the area, the first stop for a succession of different immigrant cultures that continues today, has made the area a magnet for writers.

Sarah Wise concentrates her book on a tiny geographic area. She has chosen the area known as “The Old Nicol”. A long since vanished slum, filled with the most appalling housing and poverty. In the late 1800s the area was already gaining a reputation and was often the destination for visitors who had something to say about the poverty. Everyone from anarchists and socialists to the rich charity donors and the clergy had something to say about the way in which such poverty could exist at the heart of the richest city in the world.

Wise looks at who this slum came about. How it developed out of need, with landlords (themselves often secretive and very wealthy men) could make fortunes offering housing to the poorest people. She shows how early attempts at reform and improvement were often blocked by the rich local politicians – who often had their own fingers in the pie.

We learn of individuals, some courageous with nothing but alturism on their minds. Others with the vested interests of others – in particular the church – came to the area to try and alleviate the suffering. We also learn of the struggles that shaped the region, how the people themselves tried to escape the poverty, by resisting the system itself, or by stealing and living below the law. One of the interesting themes that runs through the book, is that there is a instinctive collectivism by the people who lived there. A mistrust of authority, that means those escaping the police could always besure of an open door or a helping hand.

Finally Wise discusses the destruction of the slum and it's replacement by what is now the Boundary Estate. These new homes were designed as ideal homes for the poor working people of the Nicol. Yet they proved inadequate for the needs of those whose lives didn't fit the Victorian idea of working life. No trace of the Nicol remains. Wise has brought it to life from contemporary accounts, newspapers and census records. A fascinating expose of the foundations that modern London are based on.


Max Cairnduff said...

That sounds very interesting, did you read The Italian Boy? I was wondering how similar they were.

Terrible cover, hideously generic.

Jeane said...

Have you read the one written by Jack London, People of the Abyss? It's also about the East End.