Dickens and Mayhew forged the way in the early-mid 1800s, many social reformers, commentators and travel writers of the Victorian era took it upon themselves to go off the beaten track for their source material. ‘Unconventional guides’ to
London were published fairly frequently, and
many chose to focus on the more salubrious districts of the capital, in order
to cast a light on the great social divide between rich and poor. The London guidebook gave way
to the ‘social investigation’ book. Many people today have heard of Charles
Booth’s great work in ‘Life and Labour in London’,
and the drawing of his famous poverty map. However, this blog is about those
lesser known individuals, who so fearlessly braved the crime-infested streets
slums in order to see for themselves the conditions of the poor, and document
it so as to provide a catalyst for change.
When I’m writing about Victorian London, these books are probably more valuable to me than the fiction of the time, as they provide a wealth of real-life characters and situations to draw upon. And often, the truth is stranger than fiction!
Montagu Williams QC, from a sketch in
Vanity Fair, 1879. Quite the dapper gent!
In the first few pages of the volume entitled ‘Down East’, we learn of the practise of hiring gaudy hats for ladies, who in the
East End would not feel right without wearing an
oversized bonnet. We learn of an undertaker who made a fortune during an
outbreak of scarlet fever, but then spent it all in the gin-palace around the
corner and drunk himself into an early grave. The man’s shop was taken over by
a low-rent amusement company, who pawned the coffins and velvet drapes and
replaced them with gruesome waxworks of Jack the Rippers victims, no more than
a year after their deaths, and within walking distance of the sites!
Williams’ book casts a light on subjects that aren’t easily accessible to the casual researcher. It gives us a very critical first-hand account of those Victorian staples that we’ve all heard of – the match girls, poor hospitals, street entertainers, East End crime (listed under a chapter comedically entitled ‘Burglarious Bill’, in which he talks to a ‘cracksman’ about how to spot the easiest safes to break into), the old Whitechapel Jewish quarter and the racial tensions therein, and the sinister opium dens situated in notorious slums. He visits prisons, and talks to some of the very men he sent down; he visits hospitals and reports on the terrible sights he finds amongst the poorest patients. Some of it makes for grim reading, other parts are laced with humour (Williams later became a playwright). It’s all grist for the mill of the writer.
Thankfully, Williams was ‘happy to add that no unpleasant consequences resulted. The cigarette had a very soothing effect, but it neither drugged me nor made me ill.” Yes, a high court judge had a smoke of crack, but claimed he wasn’t high. Imagine the newspaper reports were that to be published today!
Sadly, the story ends badly for some residents of
As Williams and his friends left the opium den, they heard a hue and cry, and
were thrust into the middle of a panicked crowd. Apparently some ‘Chinamen’ had
been robbed in a nearby pub, and had become embroiled in a fight. When a mob of
Englishmen set upon them, the Chinese men (possibly members of a notorious East End gang) drew knives and fought their way to
freedom, indiscriminately stabbing men and women in the process. Williams
happened across a dead body first hand. Grim stuff!
And yet, he continued his journey ‘Round London’. Without his intrepid spirit, and that of men like him, we wouldn’t have such colourful records of life in the Victorian era. Raise your glass to Mr. Montagu Williams QC. Gawd bless ’im.