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.


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