London has always consisted of areas of wealth together with areas of grinding poverty. Alongside the large houses of the rich and the famous landmarks of London's long history, the poor have often lived in appalling conditions in slums. Poverty at the turn of the 20th Century was widespread, affecting one Londoner in three according to a survey carried out by the industrialist Charles Booth between 1887 and 1902. Widespread slum clearance programmes were carried out intermittently for much of the first half of the century.

Slums in London were usually over-crowded areas of poor quality housing with little or no running water and sanitation. These conditions led to poor health, reduced life expectancy, increased disease, and a high rate of infant and maternal mortality for residents.

Slum areas were a matter of concern to many in the mid- to late-Victorian period. Slums and poverty were regular subjects of both fiction and non-fiction, and appear regularly in the work of novelists such as Charles Dickens. Arthur Morrison's book A Child of the Jago was particularly influential. Published in 1896, it fictionalised life in the notorious Old Nichol Street Rookery near Shoreditch, which was already being demolished to make way for the London County Council's Boundary Estate (completed in 1900).

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