“Social Distress on Parliament’s doorstep” The Devil’s Acre, Westminster

By Katie Langan

Westminster in the 19th Century was a place of great contrast and disparity, a place where “the land itself turned from solid to marshy, dry to wet and back again.”[1] In no place was this great juxtaposition more clear than the notorious slum, the Devil’s Acre, located in the heart of Westminster, in the immediate vicinity of the palaces of religion and power in England’s capital. Those with wealth or privilege condemned the inhabitants of the Devil’s Acre and other slums like it. It was only when the terrible conditions of the slums such as the Devil’s Acre began to impact on the upper classes that their laissez-faire attitude was altered and action was taken to improve the condition of the impoverished lower classes of Britain.

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Charles Booth’s poverty map, displaying Westminster in 1889, with the last remaining slum housing around Great Peter Street marked blue and black for poor, intermittent work, vicious and semi-criminal. “Booth map of Westminster” by Charles Booth – http://www.umich.edu/~risotto/ (cropped). Original: Charles Booth’s Labour and Life of the People. Volume 1: East London (London: Macmillan, 1889).. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Booth_map_of_Westminster.jpg#/media/File:Booth_map_of_Westminster.jpg

London’s poorer neighbourhoods bore the brunt of 19th-century mass industrialisation and movement into the city, and by 1851 38 per cent of Londoners originated from outside London.[2] During the first half of the 1800s, unskilled Irish labourers also poured into the areas with cheaper rents.[3] In search of employment and escaping the Great Famine back in Ireland, this influx of Irish migrants combined with the effects of a continually growing demand for urban workers created massive overpopulation in the so-called rookeries of inner city London and led to the development of the squalid conditions of the Devil’s Acre.[4]

Known as “fever-nests”, the dilapidated buildings in rookeries housed damp, cold and ill-ventilated rooms in which ten to fifteen people would reside.[5] The overpopulated slums produced ideal conditions in which diseases such as cholera, typhoid, influenza, ague and smallpox spread rapidly and devastatingly through the impoverished residents of Devil’s Acre.[6] The health and sanitary conditions within the slums of London and other cities were investigated by social researchers such as Dr John Snow and Edwin Chadwick, but it was not until the Great Stink of 1858 that government were forced to act “by sheer nuisance” on sanitary infrastructure desperately needed for the city.[7]

The Devil’s Acre was seen as synonymous with crime and immorality. Described as a “home to a community of beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and charlatans,” the Devil’s Acre was seen as the “area most ideal for housing criminals of all types” as the police avoided the area and were swiftly seen off by residents if they did enter the slum.[8] But rather than the middle and upper classes working to help this situation, Friedrich Engels documented that “everyone turns his house into a fortress to defend himself – under the protection of law – from the depredations of his neighbours” and argues that everywhere one was to find “the most barbarous indifference and selfish egotism.”[9]

The condition of the poor became a national crisis. With the rise in print journalism from the 1830s and the rise of photographic technology, the conditions of the poor were made more visible to the more affluent within society.[10] High profile cases such as the Jack the Ripper murders also helped to shine a spotlight on the dreadful level of poverty, crime, poor housing and prostitution faced by the poor in the slums of London.[11]

The implementation of sanitation and slum clearance programmes, although helpful in the short-term, displaced residents of the Devil’s Acre and forced them into less, and therefore more overcrowded, accommodation in the area, intensifying the conditions.[12] Thomas Miller unsympathetically documented this in 1852 as “a nest of ants… turned loose to overrun other neighbourhoods.”[13] The Devil’s Acre was only fully cleared following the Slum Clearance Acts of the 1870s and much of the site was redeveloped by philanthropic social housing association the Peabody Trust, which provided high quality model dwellings for London’s working poor.[14]

Gustave Dore’s illustration of Devil’s Acre in 1872, the first Peabody building can be seen at the back of the residual slum housing. "Devils acre" by Gustave Dore http://www.life.com/image/3351725. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Devils_acre.jpg#/media/File:Devils_acre.jpg

Gustave Dore’s illustration of Devil’s Acre in 1872, the first Peabody building can be seen at the back of the residual slum housing.
“Devils acre” by Gustave Dore http://www.life.com/image/3351725. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Devils_acre.jpg#/media/File:Devils_acre.jpg

Cholera

Cholera is a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhoea in its victims. Left untreated it can kill within mere hours due to acute dehydration.[15] This disease is spread through faeces within contaminated water, which in Victorian cities was unavoidable for most residents and inescapable for the poor. The World Health Organisation states the key to the prevention of Cholera is “economic development and universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.”[16] There were major Cholera outbreaks in London in 1831-32, 1848-49 and 1853-54, in which over 31,000 people lost their lives, by studying these outbreaks Dr John Snow theorised as early as 1849 that Cholera was a water-borne disease, but his theory was dismissed.[17] In July 1858 The Great Stink prompted action from the government and work soon began on a great effort to clean up the Thames and the streets of London helped to eradicate Cholera from Britain.[18]

The Great Stink of 1858

In the early 19th Century, the most common method of waste disposal was the cesspit; by 1805 there was only 150,000 to accommodate one million London dwellers.[19] These cesspits were often left overflowing or were illegally connected to surface water drains, which flowed directly into the River Thames and by the mid 1800s there were over two million Londoners contributing to sewage waste in the water each day.[20] In the Summer of 1858, London saw hot and dry weather throughout July and August, this heat, paired with the sewage and filth contained in and along the Thames created an odour so unbearable that members of parliament had to retreat from their chambers, “each man with a handkerchief to his nose.”[21] This great smell prompted the matter to be debated in parliament and as a result the Metropolis Local Management Amendment Bill was passed in a record eighteen days, and construction began on the Bazalgette sewage system.[22]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvDgFi5acB0

This video contains contemporary descriptions of Victorian slums before clearance in the 1890s. Containing material from iconic author Charles Dickens, social researcher and journalist Henry Mayhew, philosopher Friedrich Engels and poet Thomas Miller. These accounts, with accompanying images of various slums and their inhabitants, paint a vivid picture of the life and conditions within the slums of nineteenth century English cities.

 


Further Reading 

http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/slums Written by Judith Flanders, a Victorian focussed historian and author, and part of the British Library’s collection of articles, this page specifically relates to the slums of the Victorian era, including visual materials to enable the reader to understand the conditions and efforts to improve Victorian slum housing.

http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/ Run by the City of Westminster Archive, this website details the rise and fall of Cholera in London and the condition of the Thames throughout this time, with information on slums and notable health researcher Dr john Snow.

http://www.victorianlondon.org/ Written by Lee Jackson, author of Victorian London, this encyclopaedia of Victorian London contains contemporary documents related to areas of the city, sorted geographically to enable readers to find descriptions of London slums as they stood in the Victorian age.

http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/rippercussions.htmlWritten by Lisa Johnstone, this essay focuses in a more in depth way on the reaction and effect of the Victorian press during the Jack the Ripper case in exposing poverty and shifting opinion.


[1] Shenton, C. (2013). The day Parliament burned down. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P33

[2] Dennis, R. (2012). Urbanising Experiences. In The Victorian World (pp. 241–258). London: Routledge. P241

[3] Kirkland, R. (2012). Reading the Rookery: The Social Meaning of an Irish Slum in Nineteenth-Century London.New Hibernia Review,16(1), 16–30.

[4] St Giles in the Field. History. Retrieved November 13, 2015, from http://stgilesonline.org/history/

[5] Gilbert, P. K. (2012). Disease and the Body. In The Victorian World London: Routledge. pp. 308–326.

[6] Ibid

[7] Halliday, S. (2001). The great stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of the Victorian metropolis. United Kingdom: The History Press. P163

[8] Lemon, J., & Daniel, P. (2015). Devils Acre – Thames and Cholera. Retrieved from http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-westminster/the-devils-arce/

[9] Engels, F., Translated, Henderson, W. O., & Chaloner, W. H. (1971). The condition of the working class in England (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. P31

[10] Johnstone, L. (2016). Rippercussions : Public Reaction to the Ripper Murders in the Victorian Press. Retrieved from http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/rippercussions.html.

[11] Ibid

[12] Gilbert, P. K. (2012). Disease and the Body. In The Victorian World London: Routledge. p. 313

[13] Miller, T. (2012). Victorian London – Districts – Seven Dials and St. Giles. Retrieved from http://www.victorianlondon.org/districts/sevendials.htm.

[14] Shenton, C. (2013). The day Parliament burned down. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P256

[15] National Health Service. (2015). Cholera. Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cholera/Pages/Definition.aspx.

[16] World Health Organisation. (2015). Cholera. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs107/en/.

[17] City of Westminster Archives. (2016). Cholera and the Thames. Retrieved from http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk.

[18] Ibid

[19] Thames Water. (2012). Our History: The Great Stink. Retrieved from http://www.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/850_2611.htm.

[20] Ibid

[21] Halliday, S. (2001). The great stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of the Victorian metropolis. United Kingdom: The History Press. P163

[22] Lemon, J. (2016). The Great Stink. Retrieved from http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/the-great-stink/.

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