The Victorian City


H. Dignall Postman's Park & the Watts Memorial of Heroic Deeds

The Watts Gallery 2005
One of my favourite odd crannies in the City is Postman's Park, between the old Post Office HQ and St Botolph Aldersgate. It's gets its name from being the favoured lunching spot of Post Office workers and its charm from a wall of ceramic tablets commemorating Heroic Self Sacrifice (that's one above). It also has some finely weathered old gravestones from when it used to be a churchyard and two burial grounds. The tile tablets were the idea and creation of Victorian painter and sculptor G. F. Watts. They commemorate acts of bravery that lead to the death of the perpetrator, retold in tasteful text and quirky detail. This informative little book, first self-published in 1987, has been updated and published by The Watts Gallery, the memorial museum to that admirable chap in Surrey.


Judith Flanders Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London
The grime and squalor of Victorian London is far from a rarely-covered subject. Novels, films, TV documentaries and non-fiction books there are aplenty, detailing the long and painful process by which it was realised that urbanisation and industrialisation had to be controlled and ameliorated if poor-people's lives weren't to be nasty and short. Charles Dickens was no small contributor to this growing awareness and this book draws on his writing and characters to add flavour to this book's author's already-pungent observations of the details of London life during the 19th century. You'll be dining out on what you learn here for months. Like did you know that the waiters in chop houses paid the restaurant' owners to work there? They had to live off the tips they received and even had to keep the linen clean themselves. And that Queen Victoria was more-often-than-not an unpopular monarch, especially when she disappeared for decades in mourning for Albert. This book teems with such memorable detail, dealing with topics like travel, eating out, the sewers, entertainment and street life. It'll leave you fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, and really glad to not have lived in London back then.


Stephen Halliday The Great Stink of London
Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of Victorian London

It was the Great Stink of 1858, when the steamy summer temperatures brought home to Members of Parliament - even behind the closed windows of the Houses of Parliament - the fragrant consequences of the sewage of two million Londoners being pumped straight into the Thames. It fell to Joseph Bazalgette to come up with something to replace the old pipes and shift the shit somewhere else. This he did so well that his system of sewers, pumping stations and treatment works still forms the basis of London's network. The book tells a good story somewhat repetitively, and could have done with some harsher editing. Bazalgette's importance to the layout and history of London is undeniable - the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments weren't built solely for traffic, there's plenty flowing underneath too. These embankments narrowed the Thames, and made some prime riverside properties, like Somerset House and the lovely lost Adelphi, into road-side properties. This book tells the story well enough, but leaves the way open for something terser and more gripping.
Now there's a novel by Clare Clark set in the sewers, as another Crimea-traumatised character (see also Anne Perry) uncovers corruption and is accused of murder.

Lee Jackson Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth
And further to my comments on the ubiquity of Victorian filth, mentioned in my review of the Judith Flanders book, here's a book comprehensively concentrated on that very subject, after reading which you may feel you've got the subject under your belt, as it were. Aside from the big three - the Stink, the sewers and the slums - the author has chapters on new topics like the provision of public baths and lavatories. Mr Jackson is London's leading Victorianist and provider of the best books and the finest website - - so he knows whereof he speaks. There is a repetitiveness to the reasons why these necessary, and to us basic, public health measures took so long to get implemented. They all revolve around those with money and power doing all they can to keep their grip on both, and to blame the poor themselves for their lives of squalor and suffering which were, in fact, largely the result of said greed. It's heartening how much better things are now, but these attitudes sadly persist.

Lee Jackson Dickensland
The novels of Charles Dickens and, to an even greater extent, the films made of them now do most of the heavy lifting in our visualising of Victorian London. And it has been so since soon after Dickens's death it seems. From early on certain sites and even sort-of theme parks helped create a certain idea of Old London that still persists. Lee Jackson traces and analyses examples of this, from the creation of The Old Curiosity Shop through fetes and fairs to the film versions of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, with and without Muppets. There is a problem defining the concept of authenticity when dealing with fictional places and characters, of course, but the author covers this ground sensibly, comprehensively and entertainingly.




Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
The author has long been a friend of this site, even taking the Venice Questions in 2011, after I reviewed the first Henrietta Lightfoot novel. Around that time she mentioned that she was working on a book about Jack the Ripper's victims and I remembered being disappointed. But of course she was setting out to produce a corrective to the mainstream misogynist tourist-fleecing agenda, and the tours which make most sensitive Londoners shudder with shame. Her revisionist take has been so effective she has suffered online trolls and Daily Mail boneheads who cannot come to terms with the Ripper's victims not being prostitutes, which in their poisonous worldview means that they deserve no sympathy. The chapters here devoted to the lives of each victim. Mostly their hard but stable lives were shattered by circumstances, and they took to the bottle. A couple of them were indeed 'on the game', but one of these arguably, and the rest were not, this 'fact' being the invention of the newspapers to generate sensation and sales. Given that the original court records have been lost the writing of this book seems to have involved, apart from much fresh research, the careful interpreting and comparing of these sensationalist newspaper reports. Each life also gets a fascinating variety of background, from Peabody Trust housing, through charity schooling and the Crystal Palace to the grim details of 19th-century prostitution. The author's way with words makes this a smooth read, if not exactly an easy one, given the issues it raises, which given the toxic reaction to its compassionate standpoint cannot be dismissed as merely outdated Victorian values.

The photo left is of Mitre Square in Aldgate, where the  body of Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim, was found.

Sarah Wise The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
One thing about my immersing myself in Victorian filth so intensively, in February 2023, to feed my genealogical obsession with my 19th-century forebears, is that common themes. This book concentrates on life in the Old Nichol, the slum of slums, between Shoreditch Church and Brick Lane. The death rates within its confines where almost double those of the area of Bethnal Green, within which it festered, and Bethnal Green was itself one of the worst areas of London for death and squalor. As has become a familiar refrain from the books of Lee Jackson and Judith Flanders above most of the 19th century was spent, as awareness and anger grew, with the passing of laws which proved next to useless in the face of vested interests and the toothless vestry system of government. The slum landlords, who made far more from the powerless poor who where crammed into these jerry-built tenements than the comfortable and demanding residents in more prosperous areas, were happy to rake in the profits whilst doing nothing. Most were either wealthy knobs or vestry committee members. Slum clearance had to happen, even if this meant that in the medium term the situation was worsened by those who lost their homes having to cram into a diminishing number of slums before replacement accommodation was built, usually by charitable institutions like the Peabody Trust. The vestry system was finally swept away by the creation of the London County Council in 1888, around 5o years after the governance of most of the other major cities in the country has been so centralised. So the Old Nichol rookery itself wasn't demolished until the 1890s, replaced by the circular new Boundary Estate, named for the area being on the border of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. But as this then became populated by what the Victorians defined as 'the deserving poor' only 11 Old Nichol residents were amongst the 5,100 housed in the new estate. In later chapters the author deals (quite roughly) with the books that the Old Nichol engendered - Arthur Harding's life story East End Underworld and the novel Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison being only the most famous.

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin