The Irish Quarter, Oxford Street

“Irish poverty is a thing apart; it has no model or parallel anywhere in the world; once you have seen it you know that in theory the wretchedness of man has no limits…”
–Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland, its Society, Politics and Religion, 1839

This is a quote given by Flora Tristan to introduce part of her travels and studies of London, a look at the Irish quarter on Oxford Street. (I have written lots about Tristan, the general review of her descriptions of London is here).

At its starting-point, the elegant, long thoroughfare of
Oxford Street, with its throng of carriages, its wide pavements
and splendid shops. is joined almost at right angles by Tottenham Court Road; just off this street, facing Oxford Street, there is a narrow alley nearly always obstructed by an enormous can loaded with coal, which leaves hardly enough room for you to pass, even if you flatten yourself against the wall. This little alley, Bainbridge Street, is the entrance to the Irish quarter.

Bainbridge Street still exists but all the rest of it, absolutely all of it is all gone now as though poverty never existed there. You could not image unpaved streets or coal yards or dunghills here:

It is not without fear that the visitor ventures into the dark, narrow alley known as Bainbridge Street. Hardly have you gone ten paces when you are almost suffocated by the poisonous smell. The alley, completely blocked by the huge coal-yard, is impassable. We turned off to the right into another unpaved muddy alley with evil-smelling soapy water and other household slops even more fetid lying everywhere in stagnant pools. I had to struggle against my revulsion and summon up all my courage to go on through this veritable cesspool. In St Giles, the atmosphere is stifling; there is no fresh air to breathe nor daylight to guide your steps. The wretched inhabitants wash their tattered garments themselves and hang them on poles across the street, shutting out all pure air and sunshine. The slimy mud beneath your feet gives off all manner of noxious vapours, while the wretched rags above you drip their dirty rain upon your head. The fantasies of a fevered imagination could never match the horrifying reality! When I reached the end of the alley, which was not very long, my resolution faltered; my body is never quite as strong as my will, and now I felt my stomach heave, while a fierce pain gripped my head. I was wondering whether I could bear to go any further …

Sometimes I want to hit Flora Tristan, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the sentimentality that follows, driving her to go further. But go further she did. It is reminiscent of what she found in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, other centres of Irish settlement:

Picture, if you can, barefoot men, women and children picking their way through the foul morass; some huddled against the waII for want of anywhere to sit, others squatting on the ground, children wallowing in the mud like pigs. But unless you have seen it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine such extreme poverty, such total degradation. l saw children without a stitch of clothing, barefoot girls and women with babies at their breast, wearing nothing but a torn shirt that revealed almost the whole of their bodies; I saw old men cowering on dunghills, young men covered in rags.

What to her could be more other than these impossibly poor people, living in conditions that break my own heart in two. In seeking to describe them she reaches for comparisons and find only ‘negroes‘ and animals. Their dangerous hungers easily mastered by her assurance of authority.

Inside and out, the tumbledown hovels are entirely in keeping with the ragged population who inhabit them. In most of them the doors and windows lack fastenings and the floor is unpaved; the only furniture is a rough old oak table, a wooden bench, a stool, a few tin plates and a Sort of kennel, where father, mother, sons, daughters, and friends all sleep together regardless; such is the ‘comfort’ of the Irish quarter! All this is horrifying enough, but it is nothing compared with the expressions of the people’s faces. They are all fearfully thin, emaciated and sickly; their faces, necks and hands are covered with sores; their skin is so filmy and their hair so matted and disheveled that they look like negroes; their sunken eye express a stupid animal ferocity, but if you look at them with assurance they cringe and whine. I recognised in them the selfsame faces and expressions that I had observed when I visited the prisons. It must be a red-letter day for them when they enter Coldbath Fields; at least in prison they will have fresh linen, comfortable clothes, clean beds and pure air.

A kennel, she writes, where the Irish cringe and whine. They must suffer all the physical misery and hopelessness of poverty, while also being stared at by women like Flora, stripped further of their humanity. This makes me think about the ways such levels of want undoubtedly deform the spirits of those who suffer it (but they are still ‘us’ goddamn it), while also the visual manifestations of it push them beyond the pale of what the middle classes consider human. For Flora, Black folks are already automatically included in this, axiomatic of this status of suffering and otherness. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that poverty should make the Irish look like negroes to Flora. Act like dogs.

There is such a tangling here of otherness.

It exists in other descriptions of the Irish, like Engels describing their areas in Manchester, likening them to animals and savages, insinuating they cannot be reclaimed but drag the English down with them.

How do they all live? By prostitution and theft. From the age of nine or ten the boys begin to steal; at eleven or twelve the girls are sold to brothels. The adults of both sexes are all professional thieves and their sole passion is drinking. If I had seen this quarter before I visited Newgate I would not have been so surprised to learn that the prison takes in fifty or sixty children a month and as many prostitutes. Theft is the only logical consequence when people live in such destitution as this. (156-158)

At least she does not blame them for their step outside of society’s mores in the battle for survival.

As I have mentioned before, the editing of the book and additional information are splendid — so here are some final facts on the area:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Irish quarter in St Giles, Holborn occupied roughly the area bounded by Charing Cross Road, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, but in Flora’s time the two last-named Streets did not exist; slum clearance began a few years after her 1839 visit. According to the census of 1831 the population of this district – commonly known as Little Dublin – was a staggering 36,432. The 1841 census registered 82,291 lrish-born residents in London (3% of the population) but this did not include children born in England of Irish parents. By 1851 the number had increased to 109,000 (4.6%) largely because of the influx of Irish after the terrible potato famines in lreland. Professor Lynn Lees has calculated that if children and relatives were added, the figure
would have risen to 156,000, but even this is still short of the
inflated figure of 200,000 that Flora gives for 1839.

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