London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City
G.M. Trevelyan wrote that Social History, a subject of special interest to that great Whig historian, was history with the politics left out. London’s Shadows is one of a number of recent scholarly titles which has taken that one stage further: history with the politics and most of the cheerful bits left out.
Between 1801 and 1911 the British became city dwellers. In 1801, the year of the first census, 20 per cent of the population lived in urban communities and 80 per cent in rural areas. By 1911 those figures had been reversed. As agriculture gave way to industry as the principal means of earning a living, a population of farm labourers and rural craftsmen became factory and office workers. The challenges that these developments presented in providing decent food, clean water, acceptable housing and sanitation were formidable and were not always met. This book examines the consequences for the greatest city the world had ever seen, whose population had, in the same period, grown from fewer than a million to more than six million.
The book is framed in the story of the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, since these represented the ultimate horror for urban dwellers. But the Ripper wasn’t the only horror in town. Even as the Ripper murders were dominating the headlines, dismembered limbs were fished out of the Thames near Pimlico and matched with a woman’s trunk which had been found during building work for the new police headquarters (New Scotland Yard) on the Thames Embankment.
The author makes the point that more prosperous citizens were not indifferent to the fate of their poorer neighbours and that many regarded their work for the poor as, literally, missionary work. The social reformer Helen Bosanquet believed that the answer to the problems of the poor lay in private charity and an appeal to matriarchs. Schools and colleges set up centres to minister to the needs of the poor and one of them, run by Pembroke College, Cambridge, still thrives in Wandsworth, though it is now known as Pembroke House and no longer Pembroke Mission. Others, like the early Fabians Beatrice and Sidney Webb, believed that the answer lay in intervention by the state. That debate continues.
Drew Gray’s book is a fine addition to the literature on urban history at a time when we were learning to live in large communities and experimenting with different ways of doing so. He comments that many criminals emerged from the Victorian prison system ‘broken, resentful, malnourished and in many cases mentally disturbed by the experience’. Sound familiar?