Desolation Row: Victorian Britain’s Sensational Slums
In the late 19th century, middle-class Britain became fascinated by the existence of a foreign presence in its very own cities and towns. Slums, and the sordid stories of sexual violence and vice within them, held newspaper readers rapt with curiosity and fear.
On 2 November 1895, Rosina Meagher, a young Welsh woman, was attacked by her husband. The assault left her seriously injured. Rosina lived in a notorious lane in Newport known as ‘Quiet Woman’s Row’, so-called satirically in the local press as a shorthand for the domestic violence – aimed at women – that was seen as typical of slum areas. Coverage of Quiet Woman’s Row in the local press – and its gratuitous focus on violence – was typical of the late-Victorian and Edwardian penchant for ‘slumland storytelling’, where sensational coverage of life in the slums that blighted towns and cities across Britain served as a means of arguing for urban redevelopment – and selling newspapers.
Several prominent writers wrote about the urban slum during this period, including Jacob Riis, George Sims, Margaret Harkness, Arthur Morrison and Jack London. Slums – the first recorded use of the word is in 1825 – were one symptom of the mass growth in population which occurred in the first half of the 19th century. The shift from agricultural to industrial labour saw people move to urban areas where cheap housing, designed to be fairly short-term, was built on land under short leases to accommodate them. Increasingly, a number of families found themselves crammed in, and unsanitary conditions followed.
Fact and fiction frequently merged when it came to depicting slum life. The sordid stories became entertainment for readers who enjoyed the tales at a safe distance. ‘Slum tourism’ developed, where members of polite society went to see for themselves what the slums were like. In the 1890s, the press reported that an unnamed young girl from a wealthy background had been reported missing. Detectives eventually located her in a slum dwelling in East London; the girl had been so ‘enthused’ by Walter Besant’s All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882) that she had decided to visit the area to see how the poor really lived. After telling one resident about her rich parents, she had been abducted, in the hope that her father would pay a ransom for her release.
Reports of this girl’s misadventure neatly reflect the tropes of ‘slumland storytelling’ – a term coined by the historian Alan Mayne to describe the way newspapers in this period increasingly reported criminal incidents in the slum in a manner calculated to appeal to their middle-class, literate, readership. The press created melodramatic tales of slum life, stressing the inherent criminality of slum dwellers who were presented as clearly gendered stereotypes. Men were thugs; women were either unfeminine, displaying a lack of mothering instincts towards their children, or innocents who had married and become victims of domestic violence, left cowering in their slums, or desperately seeking to maintain respectability in the face of abject poverty. Children were either feral, running around in the streets with little parental guidance, or – like the women – innocent beings who, if removed from their environment, might thrive. Women were the focus of this style of storytelling, falling into one of two categories: uncouth criminals or submissive sexual victims. And because women were seen as being akin to children, their loss of virtue, or their criminality, was particularly shocking.
Slum stories, of course, were written by outsiders and shaped by preconceptions of slum life. In 1894, the Liverpool Mercury reported the graphic yet intimate details of a local magistrate’s experiences of the city’s slums. Here, a member of the respectable classes had ventured into the dangerous slums to see the residents’ lives and had come back to share his exploits with the rest of his class. It was reported that the main features of slum life were ‘squalor, drunkenness, improvidence, lawlessness, immorality and crime’. Such stories made readers feel as though part of their city was like the Wild West.
In 1899, the Belfast-based Northern Whig published a large feature that pushed for wholesale slum clearances. Until this happened, it argued, the slum would remain ‘the same foul, dangerous quarter of obscenity, filth and degradation’ where sin, vice and crime were rife. It depicted destitute female residents existing on weak tea and bread, dying mothers unable to feed their babies and children starving and ‘vermin-swarmed’. It eagerly noted how ‘drunkenness, harlotry, murder and bestiality’ were ever-present in areas where distinctions between sexes were ‘unknown’ due to communal living in doss houses, before including a graphic tale of one wife, the victim of domestic violence, cowering from her ‘sullen, drunken, murderous brute’ of a husband, while he ripped her clothing. This sort of gratuitous writing was not confined to newspaper reports; a genre known as ‘slum fiction’ became popular, including well-known titles such as George Gissing’s The Nether World and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago as well as the popular ‘penny dreadfuls’. In the reports’ detailing of the beaten wife’s flushed face, agonised eyes and torn bodice it particularly resembles the latter. There was a clear sexual element to the violence, as the descriptions of bestiality and harlotry suggest. The account certainly emphasised the brutality of slum life, but it also aimed to titillate its readers.
In press reports, individual incidents and criminal cases were seen as symptomatic of slum life. Any case that came before the local courts would be pounced on if the parties involved lived in slum areas. The fact of their residence made their lives immediately newsworthy. Such was the case of Rosina Meagher and Quiet Woman’s Row. A notorious dockside street in the Pillgwenlly district of Newport, south Wales, the Row had been the subject of an increasing number of newspaper articles in the years before Rosina’s case made the news. These had focused primarily on the female residents’ tendency towards crime and disorder, despite the fact that the majority of such cases involved petty offences. These included fights over the use of shared washing-lines, arguments over keeping animals in backyards and the theft of coal from the nearby docks. It is true that the verbal and minor assaults frequently involved women, but this is inevitable given that they tended to spend more time at home than their husbands, who worked at the docks. Domestic spaces were cramped and busy, leading to an understandable loss of temper – but motivation and cause were not of interest to the press. From the mid-1870s onwards, newspapers increasingly focused on the ‘not so quiet women’ of Quiet Woman’s Row, referring to the lane as ‘the locality miscalled Quiet Woman’s Row’ and ‘that paradox of female Paradise’.
When Thomas Meagher was tried for the attempted murder of his wife, the case was covered extensively in Wales. There were exposés of Rosina’s poverty-stricken life, where ‘there was not a particle of furniture in the house’. Slum women were usually either ‘untidy women’ and inadequate housekeepers, or innocents corrupted by the slum. Rosina was to be the latter, the bourgeois ideal of womanhood; a pretty, golden-haired girl with an alcoholic, abusive husband, who, despite living in a slum street, kept her house and its exterior tidy, so that it ‘presents a cleaner aspect than others’.
Rosina Meagher became a slumland sensation. The Evening Express sent a reporter out to investigate the den of iniquity from which she had emerged:
Instead of being the quarters of orderly females, it is quite the reverse, and hardly a police-court is held but what some disorderly case is heard from that quarter … Our reporter, who visited it on Saturday morning, says it is a typical abode of the poorest clan of Irish folk. A group of coarse, dirty women stood, with their bare arms akimbo, discussing ‘the murder’, whilst a dozen of half-dressed children were sitting about the road, apparently playing.
It was, the report said, a poverty-stricken street with residents who partook in gossip while their children roamed around, neglected. But there was fear, as well as curiosity, in how the case was reported. As a result of the press coverage, slum tourists converged on the Row to see how the poor of their town lived and to see where a woman was nearly murdered. When a case as horrific as the Meagher attack made the pages of the newspapers, there was a desire by those in Newport to distance themselves from the poor in their area. This area of the town was ‘not to do with them’ – it was alien, other, separate from, and outside of, ‘ordinary’ society.
Slum stories appeared against the backdrop of major economic and social change. Newspapers were full of reports of houses being bought and sold for some quite considerable sums; but alongside this were stories about houses in Quiet Woman’s Row not selling, of short-term leases that resulted in residents frequently moving on and of landlords failing to maintain their properties. No link was made between the high instances of petty crime in the Row and unemployment, low wages or poor living conditions. Yet there were regularly appeals for something to be done about the Row. In 1850, a report into the sanitation of the town had described it in grim terms: damp and filthy, with only one outside privy to serve 14 houses and an ever-present stench due to the existence of an open rubbish pit.
Over the next half century, there continued to be problems getting the landlords of these cheaply built houses to accept responsibility for maintaining them. In 1888, the owner of a two-roomed house – let to a family of seven – was called to the police court for allowing the premises ‘to be in a filthy and overcrowded condition’. Residents themselves demonstrated some agency in 1875, organising a petition that was submitted to the council, calling attention to ‘the closet accommodation to the houses at west end of Quiet Woman’s Row, which is a disgrace and a nuisance to the neighbourhood’. The following year, one magistrate ‘made further allusion to the unsatisfactory condition of Quiet Woman’s Row’ and noted that 68 residents had to share two privies. The owner was served notice to provide four additional closets, although there is no evidence that they did. In 1887, a press report speculating that the Row would be demolished to make way for a new railway and station serving the dockyard made no reference to the impact it would have on residents, but enthused, instead, on the benefit of such plans to the whole borough of Newport. The residents of the Row were living in conditions regarded as among the worst in the area, where the struggle to even get the most basic of amenities took years and where they were seen by the rest of Newport as, essentially, a foreign presence.
The focus on criminality in the Row was not entirely unfounded. Some residents did commit offences, which was also the case in many other slum areas. A few of the women in the Row were repeat offenders, but men also appeared in court, often for more serious offences, including severe physical assaults and attempted murders. Many petty offences were understandable given the economic and spatial pressures on residents of both genders; there were fights over shared spaces, an impatience with sharing tiny, unhygienic houses with multiple other occupants, including grown-up children, and financial worries that saw many steal small coal and others unable to pay the required maintenance when their children ended up in the local reformatories. In 1893, a resident called Thomas Flynn told the court he could not pay a fine ‘because for some time past work had been very dead’.
But overwhelmingly press coverage focused on the women of the Row. Virtue, once subjected to the realities of the slum, was soon lost. Quiet Woman’s Row became shorthand for crime, disorder and filth. It was soon at the forefront of the local press’ attempts to see slums swept aside in the name of progress. Newsprint influenced both public opinion and local government policy. By focusing on the crimes rather than their underlying causes and by making the Row a no man’s land where fearless investigative reporters volunteered to visit and report on the inhabitants as though they were a foreign tribe, press coverage made the Row appear not a part of Newport – and if it wasn’t part of Newport, it shouldn’t be there.
Soon it wasn’t – it was demolished in 1899, and the last reference to it in the press, in 1910, made clear that it was a piece of history deservedly consigned to the past. The sensationalism of slum reporting had been replaced by a mere footnote in an article about ‘curious’ place names of the past.
Nell Darby is a crime historian and the author of Life on the Victorian Stage (Pen & Sword, 2017).