Tag Archives: Islington

The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

Save

Islington Fights Buy-to-Leave: First local policy steps to a Lambeth we can live in?

Islington Council is moving to penalise landlords who buy flats in new highrises  and leave them sitting empty, using a new term I haven’t heard before but describes perfectly a new phenomenon of housing assets instead of homes: Buy-to-Leave. In summary from the Guardian:

Property investors who leave homes empty just to make money from property price rises could be fined or even jailed under proposals made by a London council.

Islington plans to force owners of newly built homes to prove they are occupied. If homes are left empty for longer than three months owners will face high court injunctions which if breached, could bring fines, repossession and, in the worst cases, jail for owners, the council said.

The drastic action has been proposed as the north London borough revealed that 30% of 2,000 homes built in the last six years have nobody on the electoral register and, even when students and foreign tenants are discounted, close to a quarter of homes in five of the newest residential developments appear to be empty.

I’ve been wondering for some time just how many of these new highrise flats going up all over the city were occupied — and racking my brains as to how to measure it — especially as a lot of them are being built in Vauxhall, and there is a possibility that they will be appearing in Brixton. Islington Council has tried to use the electoral register to look at how many are actually serving as permanent residences. The Guardian states:

The boom in investment in homes is being felt across the capital. Research consultancy Molior has found that in developments of more than 20 units in London, over 70% of new-build sales in the £1,000-£1,500 per square foot range were to investors, and over 50% in the £700 to £1,000 per square foot range. It said some are “held as permanently available hotel suites” by the owners.

So I imagine that data is where the below graph published with the story comes from — but aside from being an indictment of greed in a city where so many people are desperate for housing, the sources of the data are remarkably opaque. Perhaps because Molior is a high-price research service for real estate interests.

Islington’s announcement has, of course, caused a ripple of shock and horror across the business community. I saw a link to Forbes, clicked it, and while it was loading this quote appeared on my screen:

Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it.
–William Penn Patrick

It made me throw up a little in my mouth. In a world facing sky-rocketing inequality and still reeling from the crisis caused by bankers, not to mention environmental collapse, the condemnation of wealth is not just sour grapes. But such a quote just tells you to expect to a string of cliches rather than any kind of considered response to a council fighting for its constituents and their quality of life. Tim Worstall’s An Englishman’s Home Is No Longer His Castle does not disappoint. In claiming that the council is ‘micromanaging the London housing market’ he writes:

But the most important point really is that property is property. You own something then you get to do as you will with it. If you can’t do what you will then in a certain sense then you don’t in fact own that thing. So this is another step along that road of killing off the idea of private property altogether:

But leave that aside: if people wish to leave a house empty, given that they own that house then they’ve a perfect, nay an absolute, right to do so. Just because that local council isn’t issuing enough planning permissions for new homes doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to overturn this most basic right to the ownership of those things that, umm, one owns.

This ignores centuries of restrictions on property, because we’ve had centuries of comfort, nay better lives all around, due to a concept of the public good. He’d probably be the first one to complain if a strip club was built next to his house (lowered property values, nuisances, loud drunks, licentious behaviour, umm, I can hear him rant now). Luckily he’s probably protected by zoning or other planning measures. For the public good. We have parks for that too, and public drains and shared streets and street lights even, all sorts of things he takes advantage of without second thought.

Just imagine the terrible impact that vast amounts of uninhabited housing have on a community. I don’t have to imagine it, because I’ve been interviewing older folks living in the remaining social housing in Limehouse. It breaks my heart to hear them mourn the destruction of their communities, as their children have had to move miles away to find housing they can afford.  They don’t feel safe because their neighbourhoods no longer bustle, no longer have life. Those people who do live in those new highrises tend to be there only for a few months at a time, or from Monday to Thursday. Churches are sharing their pastors and shutting down almost all their services and events, local businesses are disappearing, pubs are closing, the streets are empty come weekends. Flats sit empty when council waiting lists for housing run to the tens of thousands. Worstall asks:

What is it about “private property” that the local council doesn’t get here?

But really, what is it about not just urban planning, but the value of the public and society and a community safe to live in that you don’t get?

Islington Council member James Murray writes in the New Statesman the reasoning behind this effort, and he is certainly eloquent (this is for you Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council):

Off-plan profits hit the headlines last week with reports that a studio flat in Battersea power station, sold for close to £1m in the spring, is now due to go back on the market for up to £1.5m before it has even been built. The old free market assumption that building more housing meets demand and makes prices fall is turned on its head – in this case new housing is not helping the crisis and, by pushing up prices generally, could actually be making it worse.

And among these flats that are sold off-plan, people get particularly outraged when they are bought as “buy-to-leave” investments – flats which are built and then left empty as their values rise. It’s one of the grimmest expressions of how new housing built in London can become a prized asset over a place to live.

It shows, I think, at least a little bit more sophistication in understanding London’s housing market than that shown by Lambeth’s council I’m sad to say — and they really should know by now given what’s happening in the rest of the borough, particularly Myatt’s Field — and more willingness to work to find solutions. This is just a start in addressing the bigger problems, as Murray writes:

Of course ending buy-to-leave would only take the very sharpest end off the housing crisis in London. We also need to help councils build more, to elect a mayor who takes affordability seriously, and to make the private rented sector fit for purpose. But we need to challenge the injustice people feel when new towers rise out the ground and sit there empty. We need to stop a cynicism that threatens to undermine support for building when people can’t see how new homes will help.

When we’re building homes in London, buy-to-leave shows it really matters what we build – and at the very least, new “housing” must provide homes. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

It’s definitely something Lambeth’s council should be supporting, looking to implement, and at the least learning from as the planning measures move forward through the challenges from developers.

Save