What Was Life Like In The East End Of London?

Living in the East End of London in the 1830s was a truly horrible experience. Take a quick tour of the environment and then experience a sensory introduction to the East End.

Read any literature about Victorian London and you get the impression that it was a time of great progress. It has been romanticized in literature and even history books look at the era as an amazing period of advancement. But Victorian London also had an ugly, smelly and disturbing underbelly that was the East End. Don't be fooled by the romance - it was a hellish place to live and raise a family.

My forebears were East Enders - true cockneys - people born in the London Borough Of Tower Hamlets, an area of 7.6 square miles that incorporates Stepney, Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Poplar. More generally, the term East End wasn’t actually coined until the late 19th century to refer to the area to the east of the City Of London. So it’s possible to come from the East End but not be considered a true East Ender.

The East End was an extremely dangerous part of London in the 1830s - it was considered to be the most deprived Borough in London. Crime went unreported and unsolved. The Metropolitan Police were in their infancy, having only been formed in 1829. The first intake of policemen left much to be desired, with many of them being quickly dismissed for drunkenness on duty. Many victims of theft or mugging didn’t report the crimes because they knew it was pointless. Those that did get caught had plenty to be concerned about - transportation of criminals to Australia reached its peak in the early 1830s.

The Famous Black Ditch of the East End

Accounts of the living conditions in the East End paint a picture of overflowing cesspits, pigs in backyards and inadequate drainage or water supply. Many of the sewers were open ditches and those that did run underground were not maintained so they blocked up. The worst drain was known as the Black Ditch which ran from Spitalfields and emptied into Limehouse dock. It became so blocked up that attempts to divert the flow actually made the stream stagnant and more offensive.

Water was supplied to the streets by the East London Water Company, which took its water directly from the River Lea north of Bow - an area with its own problems of sanitation. Mains piping was generally made of wood at the time, which allowed bacteria to form before the water was delivered to the home. A third of the houses were supplied directly but most people relied on pumps installed in the streets.

With a backdrop of poor sanitary conditions and infected water, a Cholera epidemic broke out in East London in 1832. Cholera forms when a bacteria commonly found in sewage gets into the drinking water. But doctors didn’t understand that - they believed that cholera spread through the unpleasant or unhealthy smell of London - transmitted through the miasma. Once afflicted, the prevailing belief in the medical profession was to restrict fluid intake and prescribe purgatives to try to “equalize the circulation”. This treatment ultimately proved fatal to thousands. In truth cholera is not actually a serious disease if those afflicted are given vast quantities of water and salts to replace that lost through vomiting and diarrhoea.

My great great grandfather was a toddler at that time, and with him crawling, walking and touching everything, cholera was a potential silent killer. In Poplar, the Board Of Health issued a free supply of brushes, buckets and unslaked lime to poorer residents so that streets could be washed down. At the London docks, arriving sailors were quarantined below decks for 10 days. And as the deaths continued, those that died were rapidly buried in deep graves in the corner of graveyards. In all, approximately 40,000 people died of cholera in London between 1831 and 1866, with 6,536 dying in Limehouse alone in 1831. My great great grandfather survived, but cholera would come back to haunt my family in the 1860's. The Jarvis family were not immune to the spread of cholera.

In actual fact, tuberculosis was the main killer in the slums of East London but the cholera epidemic became a zeitgeist and evoked a quick social response. With the prevailing belief that cholera transmitted itself through the unhealthy smell of East London, efforts to improve the environmental impact of a growing population were soon in full swing across East London. With Queen Victoria poised to take the throne, the government started to debate the need for building the drainage, sewage and water treatment facilities that would eradicate the unpleasant atmosphere.

It is very easy to imagine your ancestors in the context of modern life today. But to do so would miss the bigger picture of their day to day struggle of living and working in the East End of London. It may therefore be interesting to understand what it was like to live in Poplar and Limehouse back in the 1840s and 1950s.

In the middle of the 19th century, everyone living in the East End was in a competition. They competed for housing, they competed for work and they competed for food. They lived day to day and hand to mouth and most of them had no visibility to their future predicament. The daily routine was entirely focused on earning enough money to pay the rent and to buy food for oneself and one’s family. Those with artisan skills - tailors, boat builders, carpenters, rope makers, etc. had regular work and earned barely enough on a weekly basis to get by. But the majority of people in the East End were unskilled and paid by the day. In the census of 1841, Limehouse and Poplar had 10,000 labourers alone, and most of them didn’t know where the next penny would come from.

Bryant & May's were a big employer of women

Society dictated that men did the work and brought in the money while women tended to the domestic duties. All skilled and physical work was done by men, leaving women with poorly-paid repetitive factory work which happened to be in short supply. To support their family and make ends meet, most women worked from home doing piece work where they would be paid by the item to make things. In nearby Bow, for example, the match maker Bryant & May opened a factory in 1861 to make safety matches. Those working in the factory, primarily women, risked their health by working with white phosphorous to make the matches while the assembly of the matchboxes was piece work given to women in the surrounding area. From home, these women would spend 14 to 16 hours glueing 1,000 matchboxes per day to be paid enough for a single loaf of bread.

The need to pay for food and rent also drove children to work; they were considered economically viable by the age of 7 or 8. If a family had a father who was disabled or unable to work, the children became hawkers, spending a long day on the street selling goods from a basket in order to keep a roof over the family’s head. A popular fast food of the time - a bunch of watercress - was a common hawker product.

The women quarters at a doss house

The cost of housing was the single greatest expense for every person in the East End. The streets of Poplar and Limehouse were primarily drawn based on ownership of land. The landowner, who never lived locally, would create a street that connected to existing streets and then built houses on it to rent out. No one actually living in the East End owned their home or building - they were simply tenants; and every landowner employed a rent collector whose job it was to collect the weekly rent from tenants. Rent Collectors reigned over their territories with an iron fist, ignoring maintenance issues but happily evicting tenants immediately if they failed to pay their rent. Overcrowding was such that demand for housing always exceeded the supply, so finding new tenants was easier than evicting those who did not pay.

Most streets also had a doss house on them so that the landowner could profit from an evicted tenant in need of a night’s sleep. Doss houses slept 20 to 30 people per room, in “coffin beds” which were wooden boxes with a basic mattress stuffed with straw.

The hangover bed in a doss house

If you couldn’t afford a coffin bed, the doss house also offered a hangover bed - a wall with a rope across it at chest height, where unfortunates could sleep while hanging over it. Price - 2 pence.

If you were lucky enough to avoid the doss house then you had enough money to rent housing. Those with unskilled jobs would typically rent an upstairs single room in which the entire family would live, eat and sleep. It was also normal to take in a lodger to help with the weekly rent. The single room would contain one or two beds, some chairs and if you were lucky, a table. There was no heating, no running water and no toilet and after dark, you needed a candle. Some rooms had fireplaces but their use required coal which was an additional expense. Those with skilled work could afford to live on the ground floor, where they rented two rooms. Similarly furnished with beds and a table and chairs, this accommodation would sometimes include a primitive heater which could be used for cooking and heating water to wash.

A pump in the street served the neighbourhood with water. Locals would typically fill a bowl and then return to their room with it, where it would be used for washing, drinking and cooking. For waste, some homes had a cesspool in the basement, but most homes had a cesspit in the back garden with a wooden privy built on top. The cesspit was a brick chamber typically six feet deep and 4 feet wide. The water waste in the cesspit would leech into the ground but the residue of solid matter was removed by “night soil men” who would climb down into the pit and shovel it into a wicker basket to remove it. The smell of venting a cesspit was so disturbing that the government passed a law requiring the work to only be done at night.

A typical East End Street

Having secured a place to live, the next challenge for those living in the East End was finding food. Every street had a local food shop for typical provisions of tea, bread and confectionary, but a majority of people would buy their food from the costermonger. Unlike hawkers, who sold their wares from a basket, the costermonger used a cart and typically sold fruit and vegetables which they had purchased in wholesale bulk and then sold as individual portions. You could find the costermonger at many of the thriving markets but some pushed their carts from street to street. Due to the lack of refrigeration and food preservation, you only bought for your immediate need. Bread would be bought by the slice, tea by the teaspoon and butter by the tablespoon. The lack of cooking facilities at home meant that most food was bought ready to eat. One popular food was smoked kippers and eels - the local food shop would smoke them in the privy above their cesspit before offering them for sale.

After dark, many of the streets of the East End were in total darkness, the only light coming from candles burning in houses. But main thoroughfares such as East India Dock Road had gas lamp lighting by 1840. Each lamp was lit by hand at dusk and extinguished at dawn, the gas for them piped from the local gas works, where coal was used to create coal gas. The gas works therefore became a major source of air pollution and created a noxious aroma throughout the neighbourhood. Interestingly, 1,500 of these gas lamps, some of them up to 200 years old, still exist on the streets of London today and many are still lit every night by hand.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew described the conditions on the street as follows:

roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat's meat, and slaughter houses, dust heaps, and 'lakes of putrefying night soil' added to the filth

The grime and dirt was rather staggering. In 1851, sheep still grazed on Stepney Green; their white woollen coats turned black within days. Beatrice Webb, a famous sociologist of the time described it as a “bottomless pit of decaying life” while William C Preston, a visiting American businessman, referred to it as a “pestilential human rookery” inhabited by “stunted, misshapen, and often loathsome objects”.

So having got a good impression of the living conditions and the environment, let’s now take ourselves back to Limehouse at the turn of 1840 for a sensory tour of the neighbourhood.

It’s early morning and you have just woken up and climbed out of a bed that was occupied by four or five people. You slept in your clothes, so there is little to do to prepare for the day. You bathed a few days ago, so you have a few more days till your next wash.

Stepping outside of your front door onto the street, the first thing that hits you is the stench. Your nose is taken aback by a vile cocktail of scent, your mouth gags with every breath. The cess pits, the local gas works and the tanneries make every gasp for air a struggle, and every mouthful of air feels dense with the soot from fireplaces and smoke that lingers with the odour of detritus. You realise immediately why people called London “The Smoke”. As you look down the street, you notice the mud and then realise that it’s not actually mud at all - the open sewer in the street has overflowed again. But everywhere you look, you see dirt, mud, grime, and human and animal waste.

Your ears are then bombarded with the cacophony of noise. The church bells are calling those to the daily service. People living in close quarters with one another are arguing and quarrelling. Carpenters are sawing wood for furniture and cabinets. Boat builders are hammering nails. Shoemakers are tap-tap-tapping tiny tacks into the soles of boots. Horses and carts are clattering down the primitive streets, steel on rock. The sound of the docks fills the air too, with boats loading and unloading cargo. In the distance, you hear the sound of steam trains connecting London to the rest of England. And from every direction, you hear costermongers and hawkers singing and shouting about their wares.

The streets are crowded with the hustle and bustle of people heading off to work and you have to push and shove your way through to make your destination on time. Having started your day without breakfast, ahead of you is up to 16 hours of toil in order to make the money necessary to pay your rent and food. Many people don’t get a break at all. Whether you’re in a factory or working outdoors, you can taste the dirt in your mouth and you may find yourself washing your hands and face several times a day to erase the odours and grime of the East End.

After a long day of work, you are paid up to five pence and you return home, stopping on the way to pick up food, most likely a slice of bread and butter. The streets are still busy and sounds all around ring in your ears. If you’re a man you stop at the local public house to drink beer until you’re drunk and then return home to your wife who has worked all day herself yet also had to deal with all the domestic duties of the home and the children. As you climb into bed with your wife and children, you close your eyes to the sounds of people singing and arguing on the streets and in adjoining rooms as the alcohol-induced euphoria creates tension and aggression.

Life in the East End was a tough and endless cycle of hard work necessary to pay the rent and food. The British Empire may have been the envy of every other country, ruling the oceans and lands far and wide, the mercantile and financial capital of the world, but it’s greatness was achieved through horrendous conditions in the East End of its capital city.

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