Previously, the rich and poor had lived in the same districts: the rich in the main streets; the poor in the service streets behind. Now, the prosperous moved out of town centres to the new suburbs, while much of the housing for the poor was demolished for commercial spaces, or to make way for the railway stations and lines that appeared from the 1840s. Property owners received compensation; renters did not: it was always cheaper to pay off the owners of a few tenements than the houses of many middle-class owners. Thus the homes of the poor were always the first to be destroyed.
The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow
Photographs taken in 1868 capture the realities of housing for the poor in 19th-century Glasgow.View images from this item (7)
‘Improvements’The reshaping of the city was always referred to as making ‘improvements’. In 1826, when the process was just beginning, one book boasted that ‘Among the glories of this age, the historian will have to record the conversion of dirty alleys, dingy courts and squalid dens of misery...into stately streets...to palaces and mansions, to elegant private dwellings’.
Metropolitan Improvements, a book of urban design architecture
Architectural critic James Elmes writes about London’s social and physical change in the early 19th century in his work Metropolitan Improvements.View images from this item (7)
London illustrations by Gustave Doré
Artistic representation of overcrowded housing in London, from London, a Pilgrimage by William Blanchard Jerrold with illustrations by Gustave Doré, 1872.View images from this item (27)
Bleak House first edition with illustrations
Illustration within the first edition of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), a novel that explored the realities of people moving from place to place.View images from this item (15)
‘Indescribable filth’In 1838, Dickens described the horrible slum called Jacob’s Island, in south London. It was, he wrote, a place of ‘Crazy wooden galleries...with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched...rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter...dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations’. Although this description was in Oliver Twist (ch. 50), a work of fiction, journalist and campaigner for better housing, Henry Mayhew, described it in almost exactly the same way: ‘The water of the huge ditch in front of the houses is covered with a scum...and prismatic with grease…Along the banks are heaps of indescribable filth... the air has literally the smell of a graveyard.’
Manuscript of the Preface to the 1850 edition of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens’ manuscript draft of the Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition of Oliver Twist where he argues that his depictions of poverty and squalor were truthful.View images from this item (9)
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Article by Henry Mayhew on the cholera districts of Bermondsey, London, from the Morning Chronicle
Henry Mayhew article from The Morning Chronicle newspaper detailing the appalling living conditions in Jacob’s Island, 1849.View images from this item (1)
Charley was, like many slum-dwellers, a hard worker. She and her siblings were only three in a room, but often a single room was home to a family of five or six, who might even take in ‘lodgers’, to share the cost. Different rooms in each house had different rents. The cheapest of all were the cellars, which at best were just damp and dark; in particularly bad lodgings, the liquids from the cesspools beneath seeped up through the floor.
Sanitation and diseaseSanitation was a pervasive problem. Few houses had drainage, and there were few privies. Usually an entire court, several hundred people, shared one standpipe – a single outdoor tap – for all their water supplies, and had one, or at most two, privies (toilets in a shed outside) for everyone.
In 1849 a letter was published in the Times, giving a rare voice to the slum-dwellers themselves.
Sur, – May we beg and beseach your proteckshion and power, We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Willderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filthe. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company, in Greek St., Soho Square, all great, rich and powerfool men, take no notice watsomedever of our cumplaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffur, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us.
This was in St Giles, steps away from Tottenham Court Road, and written after the area had been ‘improved’ – in fact the courts’ single privy had been removed to make way for ‘improvements’.
When the Times followed up this letter, they found one room filled with the living and the dying side-by-side: a woman with cholera, two boys with fever, and their families. As Dickens addressed the authorities directly, after the homeless boy crossing-sweeper Jo dies in Bleak House of a similar fever: ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen...Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.’
'Field Lane Lodging-House' from The Poor Man's Guardian, 20 November 1847
Illustration and investigative piece about a Field Lane lodging house which, although sympathetic, reinforces stereotypes about the area and its inhabitants, from The Poor Man’s Guardian, 1847.View images from this item (2)
 James Elmes, Metropolitan Improvements (London: Jones & Co., etc., 1827), p.2.
 Thomas Adolphus Trollope, What I Remember (London : Richard Bentley & Son, 1887), p.11.
 Charles Dickens, ‘New Uncommercial Samples: On an Amateur Beat’, in The uncomercial traveller and other papers, 1859-1870, ed. by Michael Slater and John Drew, 4 vols (London: Dent, 2000), IV, pp.377-385 (p.380-381).
 Henry Mayhew, ‘Home is home, be it never so homely’, in Meliora: or, Better Times to Come, ed. by Viscount Ingestre (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1852), pp.258-280 (pp.276-7).
 The Times, 5 July 1849, p.5.