The Early Desperation of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch

Perhaps no city in the world presents more desolate a spectacle than the parishes of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, which together contain 70,000 people. A large part of the land here has retained its original name of gardens, where landlords and speculators have raised a multitude of wooden shacks. mostly of one storey, for housing poor families. The appearance of these gardens is indescribable: there are no streets or drains running between the miserable hovels surrounded by their rotting wooden fences; the ground has not even been Ievelled; in some places there are mounds of earth and piles of rubbish, in others there are hollows full of stagnant water; heaps of pig manure lie in front of the hovels; there is nothing but filth, stench and decay everywhere. The abominable quarters are abandoned without protection or surveillance. The city authorities do not reach this far: in fact they are nowhere in evidence. The hovels are crumbling and rotting away; there is no drainage, no lighting, no regular collection of rubbish – in short, not a sign of urban civilisation. It is the supreme example of laissez faire! This quarter is totally outside the law, outside humanity; none of the rules and regulations of civilised society apply here!

These are the words of Eugène Buret, a French journalist and economist, and the essay they are found in (later made into a short book) won a prize for best research paper from the Academy for Moral and Political Sciences in Paris. I myself found them as extensive quotation in Flora Tristan’s London Journals, but Marx also quoted from them in his 1844 Manuscripts, apparently without citation.

”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for "More Revelations of Bethnal Green" in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)
”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for “More Revelations of Bethnal Green” in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)

Thy embody for me a whole host of issues that the social writing of this period put forward most starkly — the level of horror to be found in the conditions in which people lived, the judgmental gaze of the reformer that placed these ‘hovels’ and people within them ‘outside humanity’, the challenge that I think this raises for people working along more Foucauldian lines that does not erase the evils of surveillance and inspection, but points to the fact their absence might be worse. How then do we ensure no one ever again is forced by poverty under capitalism to live like this?

To quote from ‘Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green’, in The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863:

That public attention has at last been directed to the condition of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bethnal-green is attributable to the evidence of the medical officer who, at an inquest held on the body of a child, declared that death had been caused by “blood-poisoning,” through the impure state of the dwellings in a certain locality. That a wide and populous district has for years been subject to all the foulest influences which accompany a state of extreme filth and squalor may be due to the fact that private moneyed interests have had little to fear from parochial authority, even when they have not been represented by the same individuals…But “threatened men live long;” and even now the owners of the putrid sties in the purlieus of Friars-mount, in Thorold-square, in Twig-folly, and other centres of pestilence may well believe that neither board, nor commission, nor sanitary officer will trouble them if they can only let inquiry itself die, and so contrive to hush up the whole matter until the passing excitement is directed to some new object.

Eugène Buret’s words are so eloquent I have quoted as much as Tristan quotes (that things have not changed by 1863 you can see from reading the whole article in The Illustrated London News), and my heart breaks for those who suffered the ravages of the Industrial Revolution without the protection of industrial action and unions.

It is on record that many workers in the manufacturing towns of England do not attend church because they have no clothes.

On 31 May 1840 I visited the district of Bethnal Green in the company of the parish officers responsible for distributing relief
in this part of the city of London….

Among the wooden hovels scattered all over the “gardens”  we noticed one which stood out from the rest by reason of its even more wretched appearance. It might have been taken for a pile of rotting timber thrown upon a dunghill; the fence separating it from the other hovels consisted of broken planks interspersed with scraps of iron and metal all in an indescribable state off filth  and dilapidation. In one room on the ground floor – the only room in the house – with its floor a few inches lower than the pile of rubbish in the yard outside, lived a family of ten. This hovel which measures less than ten feet square by seven feet high has a rent of 1s. 6d a week. It is even more difficult to convey an idea of the state of the family than to describe their dwelling. The man, the head of the family, was shaking with fever; illness and hunger had reduced him to extreme emaciation, and nothing about him seemed alive except his gaze. transparent and animated by the heat of his fever; it was impossible to endure his anguished expression. This man, thirty-seven years of age, English by birth and a silk-dyer by trade, told us that he could earn up to 15s. a week when employed, but that he had been unable to find work for five months. The relief officer confirmed that he had always been of good character, and that neither laziness or vice had brought him to this state. His wife, crouching by the broken hearth, held an infant to her breast, and three more barefoot young children were outside. Their father confessed to us that the other children had gone out “In the hope of finding something, either by begging or otherwise”. For five months he had had no other means of existence than what the parish allowed him and what the children brought home. Despite the extreme destitution of this family, they refused to take refuge in the workhouse.

In another yard of this abominable quarter we found a family which seemed to us even more wretched than the first, if that is possible. They were living in one upstairs room. quite spacious and light. but approached by a dark and dirty staircase where every stair shook beneath our feet. This family consisted. of eight people, all present at the time of our visit. The head of the family was a weaver of velvet, still young and English by birth. He earned 7s. 6d per week, but he was not continuously employed. His lodging cost him 2s. 6d. per week, and for nearly two months he had been unable to pay his rent. The only article of furniture in the room was his loom; there were no chairs, no table, no bed. In one corner was a big heap of straw, half hidden by a scrap of cloth, and in it were buried three children, stark naked like animals, with not a single rag between them. The woman had her back turned to us and was vainly trying to fasten about her what remained of her clothing so that she would be fit to be seem. The man was wearing a blue coal with two or three shining engraved buttons still on it; he had no shirt. He received us with courtesy, and sadly yet calmly told us the full horror of his plight. When we entered he was holding a Bible, and when the parish officer asked him why he did not go to church, he pointed to his bare chest, to his wife standing motionless with shame in the comer, and his children hiding one behind another to avoid our gaze, and replied that soon he would not even be able to go out looking for work. This family was accounted honest and the officer had already distributed clothes to them several times, but lack of work had forced the father to trade these gifts of charity for bread. And this is not the only part of London privileged to suffer such wretchedness. Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell, St Giles and St Olaf would provide us at every step with scenes similar to those we have just described.
Eugène Buret – De la misère des clases laborieuses en Engleterre et en France (Paris, 1840)

As always there is the uncomfortable clarity of the reformer’s distinction between deserving and undeserving poor — where it seems to me the undeserving poor were simply those who did not allow themselves to die slowly and without murmur or fight. The limitations of parish relief and ‘charity’ are clear. Even at this extreme, families refused to resort to the Workhouse. Mary Higgs writing sixty years — and a number of reforms — later of the terrible conditions offers a good understanding of why in the very practical sense, giving explanations of how the workhouse might kill you even faster than starvation in the open air, without even taking into account pride or lack of space.

Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place. The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.
Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place.
The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.

Reading such things I am always made so furious, it is so vital we never look back on these times as the good old days. Looking at Bethnal Green and especially Shoreditch now, I also wish there were some memory preserved of so much misery and death that formed part of the construction of these picturesque narrow alleys and quaint old corners and buildings. That this translated into a commitment to maintaining a large portion of these areas as quality social housing so that our society might reflect a vision of neighbourhoods and the conditions of the people living within them improved over time, rather than an improvement of infrastructure that forces people out.

There is a lot more written about Bethnal Green, especially the Old Nichol, of course, to be explored further.

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