Filth, disease and Dickens: Jacob’s Island, a London slum

In my last post, on English and North American death records from 1647 to the present, I briefly mentioned how the development of the industrial city in 19th century Europe and North America changed patterns of disease and mortality. The dreadful overcrowding in the slums, together with a lack of adequate water supply, particularly encouraged contagious diseases such as cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, diptheria and typhoid fever. Slum districts were periodically ravaged by epidemics. The wealthy were of course also subject to epidemics, but they were probably in less danger as they lived in more sanitary conditions, had access to doctors and enjoyed a better diet.

As the 19th century wore on, more attention was drawn to the living conditions of the urban poor. The Victorian age saw an astonishing outpouring of philanthropic activity alongside the rise of political and social reform movements. In England, social reformers such as Henry Mayhew set about documenting poverty in an effort to bring the plight of the metropolitan poor to the public’s attention. In literature, Charles Dickens often portrayed the struggles of the urban underclass, most famously in Oliver Twist with its depictions of grim workhouses, child labour and London’s criminal underbelly.

Charles Dickens in 1839, shortly after the publication of Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens in 1839, shortly after the publication of Oliver Twist
Social reformer Henry Mayhew in 1861
Social reformer Henry Mayhew in 1861

One of the most infamous slums in London was Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey. The area was notoriously squalid and was described as “the very capital of cholera” by the Morning Chronicle in 1849. Both Mayhew and Dickens visited Jacob’s Island and were appalled by what they saw. Dickens was taken there by the Thames Police, with whom he would occasionally go on patrol. This gave him the inspiration for the ending of Oliver Twist; the principal villain, Bill Sykes, meets his death there in the stinking mud. Dickens describes Jacob’s Island in evocative terms:

“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 to be so 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 Jacob’s Island”.

Jacob's Island, c. 1840. This photograph doesn't really reveal how terrible the living conditions were, so we are lucky to have Dickens' and Mayhew's descriptions
Jacob’s Island, c. 1840. This photograph doesn’t really reveal how terrible the
living conditions were, so we are lucky to have Dickens’ and Mayhew’s descriptions

Henry Mayhew also described Jacob’s Island in a letter to the Morning Chronicle in 1848. Whilst perhaps less poetic than Dickens, Mayhew is more exact in his description, with a focus on the scientific aspects of the problem:

“On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over anyone unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere. Not only the nose, but the stomach told how heavily the air was loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you crossed one of the crazy and rotten bridges over the ditch, you knew, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once white lead paint upon the door posts and window sills, that the air was thickly charged with this deadly gas.

“The heavy bubbles which now and then rose up in the water showed you whence at least a portion of the metaphitic compound issued, while the open doorless privies that hung over the water-side, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls, where the drains from each houses discharged themselves into the ditch, were proofs indisputable as to how the pollution of the ditch occurred.

“The water was covered with scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it floated large masses of rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges were swollen carcasses of dead animals, ready to burst with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores were heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which told you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster-shells were like pieces of slate from their coating of filth and mud. In some parts the fluid was as red as blood from the colouring matter that poured into it from the reeking leather-dressers’ close by”.

Although the authorities were at first reluctant to do anything about Jacob’s Island – a policeman once tried to deny the very existence of the place when questioned by Dickens – by the early 1850s the ditches were filled and the area redeveloped as warehouses. Jacob’s Island was heavily bombed in World War Two and has undergone such considerable regeneration in recent decades that it is almost impossible, looking at it today, to imagine what a centre of pestilence and poverty it once was.


Censoring Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s plays have been censored ever since they were first performed. Some, particularly the history plays, were censored in his own time because they were considered unwise, or even treasonous, in the contemporary political climate. In the 19th century, Shakespeare plays were also often censored, though for their occasionally racy and ‘indecent’ matter rather than their political content. Most famously the English physician and philanthropist Thomas Bowdler produced a sanitised edition of 20 of the plays in 1807, called The Family Shakespeare. 

Bowdler Family Shakespeare 1818
1818 edition of ‘The Family Shakespeare’

The Family Shakespeare was essentially a family-friendly edition of Shakespeare’s plays with the ‘naughty bits’ taken out. As one contemporary advertisement boasted, it omitted ‘those words and expressions…which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family’. Bowdler was inspired by personal example. In childhood, his father had entertained him with readings from Shakespeare, and it was only as he read them later that Bowdler realised his father had been leaving out or changing passages which he thought unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children.

Bowdler saw the need for an edition which might be used in a family where the father wasn’t a sufficiently ‘judicious reader’ to do this himself. He regarded the ‘coarse’ parts of Shakespeare as ‘defects which diminish [the literary] value’; he thought he actually did a favour to Shakespeare, whom he acknowledged as ‘the world’s greatest dramatic poet’, in taking away ‘obscenities’ and exposing the true genius of the text. Thus, the plays could be a more proper aid for the instruction of youth. They could now safely be put in the hands of innocent women and children.

'Lady reading by a window' ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900
‘Lady reading by a window’ ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900

So how did Bowdler decide what to take out? According to him, ‘if any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and if printed, it ought to be erased’. This ranged from minor text alterations to larger plot and character changes. Thus Ophelia’s death in Hamlet was depicted as an accidental drowning, to avoid any suggestion that she may have committed suicide, and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet was entirely left out of Henry IV, Part 1. Lady Macbeth’s famous ‘out, damned spot!’ became ‘out, crimson spot!; any exclamation of ‘God!’ was replaced by ‘heavens!’; Juliet’s cry ‘spread thy close curtain, love performing night’ was replaced with ‘spread thy close curtain, and come civil night’; and Mercutio’s ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’ was changed to ‘the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon’.

Some of the unfortunate victims of Bowdler’s expurgation:
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Ophelia 1851-2
Ophelia (by John Everett Millais, 1851-2)

Although Thomas Bowdler published the work and had considerable influence on it, it was actually his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler, who was instrumental in preparing the first edition. Henrietta made a moderately successful career out of religious writing. She was the author of the best-selling devotional Poems and Essays, and she anonymously published Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, which went through nearly 50 editions. Amusingly, the Bishop of London himself believed the Sermons to be the work of a clergyman, and offered the anonymous ‘clergyman’ a living in his diocese!By all accounts, Henrietta seems to have lived in strict accordance with the moral principles laid out in these works. Gilbert Elliot, the Earl of Minto, said of Henrietta as a young woman, ‘she is, I believe, a blue-stocking, but what the colour of that part of her dress is must be mere conjecture, as you will easily believe when I tell you that…she said she never looked at [the dancers in operas] but always kept her eyes shut the whole time, and when I asked her why, she said it was so indelicate she could not bear to look’.

The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta
The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Bowdlers harshly for their expurgation. Because they made Shakespeare’s plays suitable for family reading (according to contemporary standards), the plays continued to be read by women and children throughout the 19th century, whereas they might have been shunned for their perceived coarseness had no such family-friendly edition been available. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne defended The Family Shakespeare in this respect, saying, ‘no man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children’ Many Victorians did truly find Shakespeare too racy: in 1859 Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter saying ‘by the by, you went to see the Merry Wives [of Windsor]…I have never had the courage to go to see it – having always been told how very coarse it was – for your adored Shakespeare is dreadful in that respect, and many things have to be left out in many plays’.

In fact, Bowdler inspired similar projects – Lewis Carroll once thought about creating a Girl’s Own Shakespeare, saying ‘I have a dream of bowdlerising Bowdler, i.e., of editing a Shakespeare which shall be absolutely fit for girls’. Unfortunately, Carroll never went ahead with the project so we’ll never know what a Victorian girls-only Shakespeare edition would have looked like! Bowdler went on to produce family-friendly versions of parts of the Old Testament and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,though his greatest legacy has undoubtedly been the invention of the term ‘bowdlerisation’, defined (with good reason) in the Oxford English Dictionary as the act of removing ‘material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective’.