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Victorian squalor

Poverty and disease

A qualified City of London tour guide.

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Poverty and disease in the forgotten Victorian slums.

While dealing wThe Victorian eraith the subjects on this page I have included London as a whole, though most of the issues affected, in the main, the East end of London 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 in the main it features the huge difference in class that money 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.

East end victims

Cholera epidemic

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 capital 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.

In the auThe Victorian eratumn 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 and 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 these precautions, on February 10th. 1832 in the docks of East London Cholera reared its ugly head.

Filth and overcrowding

Being a waterboThe Victorian erarne 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.

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. They did the same as they did in their private lives, brushed it under the carpet and hoped it would go away. This poverty however, was the main cause of the need for so many prisons. People stealing food to satisfy their hunger, or a pair of boots because they had none. All this, meant that they had to be taken off the streets and incarcerated for the most minor of offences; out of sight, out of mind! The real culprits, the business men and middle to upper classes who did, or gave, nothing to remedy the situation could sit in the comfort of their fine mansions, safe in the knowledge that the starving wretch who had stolen a handful of plums from his garden, was safe behind bars. No longer a threat to humanity!

The penal system >>

Victorian image gallery >>