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Social conditions in the 19th-century port

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Charles Dickens visits Canning Town

Open sewers

Little Tommy Lee sewer.
View full size imageLittle Tommy Lee sewer, Canning Town. © NMM
The novelist Charles Dickens visited Canning Town in 1857. He described the squalid conditions there. People who worked at the recently opened Victoria Docks were forced to live in a slum built on a marsh. There were few roads, no gas supply and open sewers ran through the streets. 

Bidder Street, Canning Town.
View full size imageBidder Street, Canning Town. © NMM
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Rows of small houses, which may have cost for their construction eighty pounds a-piece, are built designedly and systematically with their backs to the marsh ditches; which, with one exception, are all stopped up at their outlet; and, in many parts of their course also, if there were an outlet, or if it could be said that they had any course at all. Two or three yards of clay pipe "drain" each house into the open cesspool under its back windows, when it does not happen that the house is so built as to overhang it.

In winter time every block becomes now and then an island, and you may hear a sick man, in an upper room, complain of water trickling down over his bed. Then the flood cleans the ditches, lifting all their filth into itself, and spreading it over the land. No wonder that the stench of the marsh in Hallsville and
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Canning Town of nights is horrible.
Workers constructing a drain
View full size imageWorkers constructing a drain in Canning Town. © NMM


Dickens continued...

Open sewer in Wilton Street, Silvertown
View full size imageOpen sewer in Wilton Street, Silvertown. © NMM
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Ague [a form of malaria] is one of the most prevalent diseases of the district: fever abounds. When an epidemic comes into the place, it becomes serious in its form, and stays for months. Disease comes upon human bodies saturated with the influences of such air as this breathed day and night, as a spark upon touchwood. A case or two of small-pox caused, in spite of vaccination, an epidemic of confluent small-pox,
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which remained three or four months upon the spot.

Child of the docks?

Building the Royal Victoria Docks.
View full size imageVictoria Dock was built a couple of years before Dickens visited nearby Canning Town. © NMM

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Canning Town is the child of the Victoria Docks. The condition of this place and of its neighbour prevents the steadier class of mechanics from residing in it. They go from their work to Stratford or to Plaistow.

Many select such a dwelling-place because they are already debased below the point of enmity to filth; poorer labourers live there, because they cannot afford to go further, and there become debased. The Dock Company is surely, to a very great

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extent, answerable for the condition of the town they are creating.

 'Londoners over the border', from Household Words, a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens. Issue No. 390, 12 September, 1857.

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