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Home Englands Glory City of London East London The Victorians (1) About me
Penal System

Victorian squalor, poverty and disease

Poverty and disease in the forgotten Victorian slums

The subjects on this paThe richge include the whole of The poorLondon although most of the issues affected in the main, the East end,  with it’s poverty and disease. Most of the content describes the Victorian era, or the period a few years prior to Victoria’s reign, and highlights the huge difference in class that wealth made. Although some of the wealthy had some devious practices going on in the background, they were not as likely to suffer the fate of those who were caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed their families. Apart from a few philanthropists who at least tried to help financially, most of the Victorian gentry were quite happy to ignore the poverty, the crime and disease that went hand in hand with it.

The Cholera epidemic

East End victims

In the autumn of 1831 there had been an outbreak of Cholera in the north of England which had made its way over from Germany. Because of the experience in Germany, the British government were able to act faster than usual to get some sort of counter measure into action.
The sick were to be kept under strict isolation and whole towns were cut off by the military and police as soon as the disease was detected. Vessels entering the river Thames from the North were immediately quarantined for a period of time.
Despite all these precautions, on February 10th  1832 in the docks of East London Cholera reared its ugly head. How had it escaped these preventative measures?

In a matter of months it had travelled from Sunderland, where the first case was diagnosed, into the capital City. Once the disease had hit London it spread like wildfire. The metropolis was a filthy, overcrowded place, with raw sewage everywhere and a water supply that left a lot to be desired. The city was polluted to an unthinkable degree. The poorer areas suffered the worse. Bethnal Green lost many to the attack. The contaminated water, combined with the flies crawling over human bodily wastes ensured the disease escalated in a short space of time. It struck quickly, and killed within days, or even hours of contracting it. Large areas were infected at once, and half the victims would die, no medical cure was available.

Filth, overcrowding and dirty water

Being a waterborne disease, Cholera could travel with speed and crop up anywhere, but people were unaware of this at the time and still allowed their cesspits to overflow. If you can imagine a place like Whitechapel at the time, with no sewers whatsoever, it is not hard to understand how Cholera (and also Typhus, which was also rampant) was allowed to kill so many of this overpopulated area. This also explains why the wealthy were not exempt from contracting the disease. Although their lifestyle was healthier and living conditions cleaner, the water supply came from the same filthy source where people had been emptying their sewage for years.
It wasn't until 1849 that Doctor John Snow wrote a paper suggesting that water was the carrier. He persuaded the local council to remove the handle from the pump in Broad Street, where 500 people had died in ten days. He had noticed that only a tiny percentage of workers at the Lion Brewery had contracted the disease and came to the conclusion that it was because they had a free beer allowance so rarely drank the water from the pump.
London was overcrowded, and the East end suffered the worse conditions possible. Places like Bethnal Green , and Whitechapel had people packed into slum housing with next to no facilities for hygienic living. In conditions like this, disease was always a major threat. Malnutrition of many of the inhabitants also added to their vulnerability.
These were the poorest areas in London before, and during the first years of Victoria’s reign. Apart from a few benevolent philanthropists, the well off seemed to ignore the existence of such places.
It wasn't until the "Great Stink" of 1858 that parliament, under Disraeli, passed a bill to clean up the Thames and start creating a sewer system. Cholera was still a major problem until 1866.