This early piece of social investigative journalism was written by Henry Mayhew in September 1849 for The Morning Chronicle, providing shocking details of a visit he made to the London district of Bermondsey.
Mayhew writes about an area known as Jacob's Island, a notorious, impoverished Bermondsey slum or ‘rookery’ hit hard by the cholera outbreak of 1849. In just three months over 10,000 people died of the disease in London alone. The outbreak worsened the already dire living conditions in an area described by Mayhew as ‘a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it’, a ‘foul stagnant ditch’ where ‘the air has literally the smell of a graveyard’. As Mayhew reports, Jacob’s Island inhabitants drew their drinking water from the same place that human excrement, rotting animal carcasses and mill waste were discarded – which inevitably advanced the spread of disease.
Did Mayhew’s letter have any effect on living conditions?
On Mayhew's suggestion, the editor of the newspaper commissioned an investigation into the living conditions of the working classes in England and Wales. As a result, at least one article appeared every day for the rest of the year and for most of 1850. This dramatically raised the profile of the public health campaign.
Jacob’s Island and Charles Dickens
Jacob’s Island was immortalised in fiction when incorporated into Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Sikes meets his death there. In the 1850 Preface to Oliver Twist, Dickens challenged critics who refuted that such a place actually existed. We can see that Mayhew’s letter reinforces Dickens’s depiction of the area as an unacceptably squalid area, and makes a comparable appeal to readers that reforms were desperately needed.