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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
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The Bitter Cry of Outcast London

Mearns shocks public opinion 

Rotherhithe Street.
View full size imageRotherhithe Street. © NMM

Andrew Mearns's The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor (1883) was even more shocking than anything that appeared in one of Dickens's novels.

Mearns's work was promoted by W.T. Stead, the radical editor of The Pall Mall Gazette. In a particularly gruesome passage Mearns described his visit to one of the notorious slums of East London.

Human rookeries

Slum housing at Snowfields, Bermondsey.
View full size imageSlum housing at Snowfields, Bermondsey. © NMM

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Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of the slave ship.

To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water. You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way

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beneath every step….You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin.

Lack of light

Mearns continued...

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Eight feet square - that is about the average size of many of these rooms. Walls and ceiling are black with the accretions of filth which have gathered upon them through long years of neglect. It is exuding through cracks in the boards overhead; it is running down the walls; it is everywhere.

What goes by the name of a window is half of it stuffed with rags or covered by boards to keep out wind and rain; the rest is so begrimed and obscured that scarcely can light enter or anything be seen outside.

Rotherhithe Street
View full size imageRotherhithe Street © NMM

Should you have ascended to the attic, where at least some approach to fresh air might be expected to enter from open or broken window, you look out upon the roofs and ledges of lower tenements, and discover that the sickly air which finds its way into the room has to pass over the putrefying carcases of dead cats or birds, or viler abominations still.

The buildings are in such miserable repair as to suggest the thought that if the wind could only reach them they would

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soon be toppling about the heads of their occupants.



Sparricks Row, Great Maze Pond
View full size imageSparricks Row, Great Maze Pond. © NMM

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As to furniture - you may perchance discover a broken chair, the tottering relics of an old bedstead, or the mere fragment of a table; but more commonly you will find rude substitutes for these things in the shape of rough boards resting upon bricks, or more frequently still, nothing but rubbish and rags.

Every room in these reeking tenements houses a family, often two. In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children, and four pigs! In another room a missionary found a man ill with small-pox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement, and the children running about half naked and covered with dirt. Here are

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seven people living in one underground kitchen, and a little dead child lying in the same room.


'Immoral purposes'

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Another apartment contains father, mother, and six children, two of whom are ill with scarlet fever…. Here is a mother who turns her children into the street in the early evening because she lets her room for immoral purposes until long after midnight, when the poor little wretches creep back again if they have not found some miserable shelter elsewhere.

Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but for the most part these miserable

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beings find rest only upon the filthy boards.

Backyard of one of the lodging houses in Mill Lane Deptford
View full size imageBackyard of one of the lodging houses in Mill Lane Deptford. © NMM


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
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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