Thursday, 8 December 2011

The hell below Haggerston

The Blackest Streets: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian SlumThe Blackest Streets: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book out of the library for two reasons: 1) someone recommended it in the Goodreads reviews for Lost London: 1870-1945 which I'd recently bought; 2) I thought, based on my struggles with working out historical London streets, that I had ancestors living in the Nichol around 1840. I've since discovered that my lot were actually in Haggerston, several blocks to the north, but never mind.

This is a very readable account of the neighbourhood behind St Leonard Shoreditch which, for about one century, had the reputation of being the dirtiest, poorest, and most dangerous place in London. Sarah Wise doesn't dispute the dirt and poverty, but she has some perspective to offer on the danger. The Nichol was a dangerous place to live, no doubt, but more for malnutrition, disease, and domestic violence than murder. Wise tells the story of how a rather rural area surrounded by gardens became a dark warren of poorly constructed and overcrowded buildings in a few decades. We hear what it was like to grow up in such an area, why so little was done for the residents, and finally, the grand plans to transform the neighbourhood into a wholesome and aesthetically pleasing community for the "deserving poor", with predictable results.

It's an interesting angle on the nineteenth century and underlines how much, and how very little, has changed.

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1 comment:

JoeinVegas said...

Interesting to read books like that and realize how nice we are in our warm homes with full pantries.