Slumming it in Victorian London
While researching for my Clearwater Series, and ‘Banyak & Fecks’ in particular, I have been investigating the slums of Victorian London. Thanks to books like Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven, and websites such as www.victorianlondon.org/ and The British Newspaper Archive, I’ve learnt a little about slums and slumming.
You often hear the phrase ‘slumming it’, you may even use it, and you know what it means today. But did you know when and how it originated? (I expect you do, but just in case, I’ll explain anyway.)
Origins of word usage, ‘slumming’
I searched through the newspaper archive looking specifically for the word ‘Slumming’ and found a couple of instances from the 18th century. They interested me because I thought the word didn’t come into use until the mid-19th century. They turned out to be spelling errors and were meant to read ‘summing’, so that made sense. Between 1800 and 1849 there were 77 instances of usage in the newspapers kept in the archive, and early instances were, again, typos, ‘summoning’, ‘slumping’ and similar instead of slumming.
In the second half of the 19th century, however, instances rose sharply to 3,741, and that figure was surpassed in the first half of the 20th century, at 3,799. I wasn’t about to check every single instance, so refined my search to the 1800s, as I am currently writing in that decade, and found most usages came in 1884, January, to be precise. Interestingly, that’s the year when, in my current work in progress, Banyak and Fecker meet.
So, from that basic hunt, I concluded ‘slumming’ as a word began in the mid-19th century, as I thought. But what was it?
This excerpt from The St James Gazette explains it neatly.
[Incurably idle, defiantly vicious, delicious horror, valuable acquisition at dinner parties… just about sums it up!]
Simply put, it became fashionable for the well to do, the West-enders, or middle and upper classes, to take themselves off to the slums of Chelsea, Whitechapel and other places, to see ‘how the other half lived.’ Abhorrent to us these days, perhaps, and the equivalent of rubbernecking a road accident, but that was how things were. Parties would be organised, some daring the streets and slums on their own, others finding a local guide, and not all of them dropping shillings to those whose homes they nosed around in.
Examples from newspapers and publications
There are plenty of mentions in publications of the day, and I picked out just a couple of examples for you.
“Now, then, who will go slumming down Chelsea way? It is apparently as nasty, and is far more convenient for West-enders to get at, by road, rail, and river, than Whitechapel.”
[The Sportsman, July 16th 1887]
Slumming appeared in literature both serious and comedic, such as I found in ‘A working class tragedy’ by H. J. Bramsbury (chapter XXXVII), which appeared in a publication called Justice, on February 16th 1889.
You might be able to see from the screenshot I took, how a visitor asks if friends would like to go slumming, and when asked what that is, explains: ‘It is quite the thing now. How the poor live is quite the newest idea. You go around and visit the slums as they are called.’
When asked what good it does, the visitor replies, ‘Well, I think it makes one feel thankful that one doesn’t belong to the lower orders.’
‘But what good do the poor derive from it?’
‘Oh, I don’t know that it does them much good except you give them a shilling occasionally… It’s quite astonishing what the interesting inhabitants are willing to do for a shilling.’
We might gape at such an attitude these days, and I’m hoping the story was satirical, but it highlighted not only what slumming was, but the upper classes’ attitude towards it as it because a popular fad. What also caught my attention was the institution that the poor would do ‘astonishing’ things for twelve pence. (Banyak and Fecks charge more or less than a shilling depending on what ‘service’ they provide.)
Slumming even turns up in popular songs of the time, as this verse from ‘The Barrel Organ’ attests.
Since high society first found a pleasure new in “slumming,”
And visiting an East-end court was deemed a task becoming
We’ve oft been told how sad a state the “masses” now are in
And what foul wretchedness is bred of ignorance and gin.
[Quoted in ‘Truth’, February 23rd 1888]
A charitable reason.
Some slummers, you might call them, went to the East End and elsewhere for charitable reasons, to see conditions for themselves, and as slumming became more popular, so more people learnt of the conditions in which the poor lived. You can find a page at Victorian London here which gives an excerpt from Dottings of a Dosser, by Howard J. Goldsmid, 1886, which includes, “Slumming” became a popular amusement; and with this amusement, and the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the matter, the public conscience was salved.
Here is an excerpt from my work in progress, ‘Banyak & Fecks’ (first draft).
On dry nights, the visitors would meet at the stone arch, warm in winter furs but cold with apprehension, speaking in hushed voices and telling each other what they expected to see.
Some came to see what they could do.
‘I believe there is talk of something called the Jew’s Temporary Shelter’, one said. ‘I may contribute to the fund.’
‘I was at Keeble,’ said another. ‘We were instrumental in establishing the Oxford House Settlement. It’s in Bethnal Green.’
It was, and it offered a club for boys, a gymnasium and a library. It hosted concerts for the poor and brought them together beneath the word of God at Bible readings while being occupied by those from the upper-classes keen to experience life side-by-side with the destitute.
‘We must all play our part,’ one woman instructed. ‘It is our Christian duty to help the unfortunates and to understand what they endure. Which reminds me, Marjory, are you invited to Sir Malcolm’s ball?’
So, slumming was a popular pastime in the years my current work in progress is set, and I have used it as a plot device. Now then, if you promise me you understand this is only the first draft, and you will be kind, let me share a little of it with you.
It’s late in 1884, Silas (Banyak) has met Andrej (Fecks), but has not yet found the courage to sell his body on the street. Instead, using his wits, he has noticed slumming tours and decides to set himself up as a guide. As usual, I have taken historical facts and real locations and mixed them with fiction. Silas is taking a group of slummers into Greychurch…
‘First of all, gents, you’ve got your loafers, them as who’s the drones in this working-class hive,’ he would say as he led his party along Cheap Street. ‘Me old dad were what you’d call a loafer, ’cos he’d carry bread baskets from Simpson’s bakery over at Five Dials right across to Old Nichol Street through there, and he’d do it ten times each morning before the sun came up, rain or shine.’ A complete lie, but no-one knew.
He’d done his research and knew his facts, however, and there was enough truth in his speech to satisfy the cynical and put down those who thought they knew more than he did.
‘The Old Nichol,’ he would say, quoting from a publication he’d found, ‘is the place between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green. It’s got twenty streets in it with seven hundred and thirty knackered houses where something like six thousand people live. I don’t want to lose any of you decent folks in there, so we ain’t going in ’cos it’s the worst slum in the East End, and there’s more interesting ones for you gents in Greychurch.’
[If you’ve not read The Clearwater Mysteries, Greychurch is Whitechapel. Silas’ facts about the Old Nichol are true.]
He’d stop outside the doss house to give the lad across the street time to count the number and collect just enough meat pies for his tray. Martin Tucker was somehow related Aunt Molly, and by the time Silas’ party emerged from the doss house, would be on the steps with his angelic face cleaned, his smile broad and inviting, but barefoot in his ragged clothes. On some nights, after selling his pies and slipping Silas a percentage, he’d make eyes at the men in the group, and it wasn’t uncommon for a gentleman to hang back, break from the pack and follow the lad into the next door yard. Martin was thirteen.
‘Not all the men what stays here’s a loafer, but the place is men only.’ Silas continued his talk in the lobby, giving Cormack time to check the room they were going to see, hide any women under the beds and lock the children in a cupboard in case any of the tourists were officials in disguise. ‘Most of the men’s seen better days. They got respectable artisans what the waves of trade-depression has overtaken and submerged.’ Some of his patter was lifted directly from the St. James Gazette. ‘They got clerks elbowed out of a berth by the competition of smart young Germans. There’s men what were once shopkeepers who got ruined ’cos the working-folk couldn’t afford their business. Even professional men like solicitors and surgeons can be found among the motley crowd in a kip-‘ouse kitchen. Right, let’s see a room. You might want to tuck your trousers into your boots, Sir.’
‘Nippers, mate. Fleas.’
Some of his paying customers asked him personal questions, such as where he lived, and he was able to reply honestly.
‘I got a little gaff with me best mate, Miss, down Limedock. Andrej his name is.’ The honesty didn’t last for long. ‘Comes from Russian royalty, but got kicked out of his country ’cos he married the wrong girl. They killed his kids and his wife, stole his land, so he had to come here. Now works shifting sugar sacks and rocks down at the Lower Pool.’
‘How tragic. But he is an immigrant?’
‘That’s right, Madam.’
‘And you share lodgings with such a man? Why?’
Sometimes Silas had to fight the temptation to punch his guests. ‘Look at it his way, love. Who’d you rather share a bed with, rats or royalty? Watch where you tread here, someone’s had too much gin and left their lunch on the step. Right, this is where I used to sleep…’
The racism suggested in that scene was prevalent, whipped up by newspapers much as it is today, and took a form of classism. The poor of the East End, the immigrants and refugees, were dragging the city down, taking jobs and spreading disease, so said the newspapers then as some, while slumming it in a different fashion, do today, but that’s a subject for another day.
‘Banyak & Fecks’ is still being written. It is a prequel to The Clearwater Mysteries and a standalone novel, not a mystery, and not MM Romance. Instead, it is a story of friendship and survival. I aim to have it ready later in 2020.