Posted on Oct 31, 2020
The following text is extracted from my own research into social conditions in London during the 19th century. Having read an article in the London press this week about the distribution of food parcels to many thousands of London families who would otherwise struggle, I asked myself "how far have we actually come since the dreadful conditions described below? How can the citizens of the capital of the world's 6th largest economy be left to rely on food packages in order to feed their children?" writes Gary Cartwright.
The London slums are no longer a part of living memory, but live on in folklore, and street names. Anybody visiting the highly popular Brick Lane market and walking east to Colombia Road flower market on a Sunday morning would likely cross Old Nichol Street. There they would find themselves at the centre of what was once the poorest and meanest criminal slum in England: the Old Nichol.
The horrors of the Old Nichol would have exceeded even those I describe below. People walking through the area now, with a skinny mocha-latte in one hand and an iPhone in the other, have absolutely no idea what happened there. Perhaps that's best. The writer Arthur Morrison wrote about the Old Nichol in 1897, renaming it "the Jago". Many of the characters in his novel, Child of the Jago, were real.
I chose, however, to give an insight into another horrendously deprived area, this one on the south side of the River Thames: Bermondsey. It was my home for many years and I love the place, but in the 19th century it was something different altogether.....
"In one small miserably dirty dilapidated room, occupied by a man, his wife, and four children, in which they lived day and night, was a child in its coffin that had died of measles eleven days before and, although decomposition was going on, it had not even been fastened down. The excuse made for its not having been buried before was that burials by the parish did not take place unless there were more than one to convey away at a time..." So wrote Dr N. Vinen, Medical Officer of Health to St Olave's in 1856, in words that convey the horrors of life eked out in grinding and inescapable poverty.
Housing conditions were appalling.
Any one who has ventured a visit to (Bermondsey), will not wonder at the ravages of the pestilence in this malarious quarter, for it is bounded on the north and east by filth and fever, and on the south and west by want, squalor, rags and pestilence. Here stands, as it were, the very capital of cholera, the Jessore of London - Jacob's Island, a patch of ground insulated by the common sewer. Spared by the fire of London, the houses and comforts of the people in this loathsome place have scarcely known any improvement since that time. The place is a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it.
In the 1880s Dr. Vinen turned his attention to the 41 slaughterhouses in the borough at that time. "The slaughterhouse was very dirty, containing old blood, and the contents of the entrails of sheep were tying around. A large cess-pool existed under the slaughterhouse and when the cess-pool was full of water it oozed up through the floorboards of the bakehouse, being some inches lower. The sickening smells are sufficient to cause illness."
The St Olave's referred to, in connection with Dr Vinen, was actually the name given to the district, and not the closed-down hospital that currently stands on the site of the Rotherhithe workhouse in Lower Road. The hospital itself was in fact originally the workhouse infirmary, and is all that remains of the once imposing building.
Reference can be found, in the archives of St Mary's church, to construction of the workhouse as being underway in 1729. For Londoners, the workhouse was the end of the line, and something to be avoided.
The infirmary, which stood alongside the workhouse, was not to be opened until 1876. In the 1920s it became known as the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Hospital, changing its name to St Olave's in 1930. The hospital finally closed in 1985, although a doctor's surgery and ambulance station remained for some time.
Sadly, records concerning Dr Vinen's own life are thin on the ground, and so we know rather less about him than we would like to, but he does make an brief appearance in Dr John Snow's seminal paper 'On the mode of communication of Cholera' (1854).
Referring to cholera cases in Bermondsey, Snow mentions "Mr Vinen of Tooley Street". This suggests that like so many of those who dedicate themselves to the public good, Dr Vinen lived and worked amongst those he helped. He was certainly on the front line in the fight against cholera, which hit Bermondsey particularly hard.
Dr. Snow is remembered for his ground-breaking work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854. This was the first major breakthrough in fighting the disease, and that such a highly esteemed surgeon - Dr. Snow attended Queen Victoria during the births of Prince Leopold in 1853, and Princess Beatrice in 1857 - would have been aware of Dr. Vinen attested to the stature within the medical profession of the latter.
Close inspection of the number of deaths during the 1849 cholera epidemic in London, reveal that the five districts with the highest death rate were Rotherhithe, St Olave, St George, Bermondsey, and St Saviour. The average rate across the Metropolis in that year was 62 per 100,000: In Rotherhithe it was 205, and in Bermondsey 161. All these districts sit side by side.
In the first four weeks of the the subsequent cholera epidemic of August 1853, the parish of St James, Bermondsey, was to suffer the highest mortality rate in London, with 29 people dying.
In a miserable apartment scarce seven feet wide live five persons and in which there was not one atom of furniture of any kind; the room contained nothing but a heap of filthy rags on the floor... There are two yards at the back of this house in each of which is an open privy; one of them is so abominably filthy and emitted a smell so foul that I was almost overpowered.
Research at the time revealed that most of those who perished had been drinking water supplied by the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, although many had been drinking water taken directly from the Thames itself, common practice amongst mariners and others working on the water. In a small number of cases, such was the shortage of drinking water that ditchwater had been drunk.
Dr. Vinen reported that linen soiled by cholera victims was being washed in water that was drained away into a well used to extract drinking water. When the cholera epidemics came to London, the poor people of Bermondsey did not stand a chance.
Dr Vinen passed away in 1889 after 34 years of service to St. Olave's.
The National Health Service tells us that even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, child mortality rates in Southwark remain higher than the average for England and Wales.
Interestingly, the same report also highlights the fact that men between the ages of 15-44 are still twice as likely to die in Southwark as the national average for their age group. In 2001, four academics from Bristol and Leeds universities, in a critical paper on health inequalities, cited Southwark, and Bermondsey in particular, as being amongst the very worst places in the UK for premature deaths. Indeed, in June 2011, the Southwark News reported that "There have been more cot deaths in Southwark in the last five years than anywhere else in London".
Figures also suggested that teenage mothers are four times more likely to experience the tragedy of a cot death than older mums, leading experts to link the terrifying record to the borough’s high rates of teen pregnancy.
This brings me back to my original question: "how far have we actually come?"
As mentioned, only the old hospital remains of the Rotherhithe workhouse. In this picture you can see the old gatehouse. For many years it was a GP's surgery. My GP, in fact.
The blue plaque commemorates the fact that the great English actor Sir Michael Caine was born here on March 14th 1933.
Bermondsey often gets a bad press, so just to set the record straight. Very close to this spot Max Bygreaves and Tommy Steele grew up (my own daughter even went to the same school as Tommy Steele!)
Great writers associated with the area include Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Pepys - who buried his Parmesan Cheese at the Cherry Gardens whilst watching the great fire of London in 1666 (its true!) - Jonathon Swift, and Sir John Betjemen. William Shakespeare built his Globe Theatre just along the river.
To anybody visiting Bermondsey who may be interested in such things, I would advise a visit to Jacob's Island, immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. The island was no work of fiction - it really existed!
At St. Saviour's Dock (pictured) you can see a glimpse of what little is left of Jacob's Island.
St George's Row marks the eastern boundary of Jacob's Island (and here you will see St. Georges school, mentioned earlier). Walking west towards Tower Bridge, staying close to the waterfront, you can see many of the old warehouses at Shad Thames and get a real feel for the history of the place.
A memorial to Dr. Snow stands in Soho's Broadwick Street, at the site of the water pump he discovered to have been the source of the Cholera outbreak in 1854.
I refer to Dr Alfred Salter in this article. For those who haven't quite had enough of my ramblings at this point, my recent article in the Southwark News concerning his trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, and his subsequent rejection of Bolshevism can be found HERE.
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