PortCities London
UKBristolHartlepoolLiverpoolLondonSouthampton
You are here:  PortCities London home > People and places > Leisure, health and housing
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card

Social conditions in the 19th-century port

Poverty and slum housing
Social investigation
Charles Dickens visits Canning Town
The Bitter Cry of Outcast London
Charles Booth
Gustave Dore
*
Send this story to a friendSend this story to a friend
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
View this story in picturesView this story in pictures

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
Quotation marks left
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
Quotation marks right
Canning Town of nights is horrible.
Workers constructing a drain
View full size imageWorkers constructing a drain in Canning Town. © NMM

Disease

Dickens continued...

Open sewer in Wilton Street, Silvertown
View full size imageOpen sewer in Wilton Street, Silvertown. © NMM
Quotation marks left
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,
Quotation marks right
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

Quotation marks left
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

Quotation marks right
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.


*
*
Glossary
Dock
Dock company
Pox

Find out more
Fact fileCharles Dickens
The greatest English novelist of the Victorian era
*
*
*
StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
*
*
*
StoriesThe Great Dock Strike of 1889
The labour movement's first great victory
*
*
8
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
Legal & CopyrightPartner sites:BristolHartlepoolLiverpoolSouthamptonAbout this SiteFeedbackText Only