‘The Smell Of A Graveyard:’ 27 Haunting Images Of Life In Victorian England’s Slums
By Genevieve Carlton | Edited By Jaclyn Anglis
Published October 5, 2022
Updated October 6, 2022
Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, England was also home to some of the most destitute neighborhoods, with 35 percent of Londoners living in poverty at the end of the 19th century.
When social reformer Henry Mayhew visited the slums of Victorian London, he recoiled. “The water of the huge ditch in front of the houses is covered with a scum… and prismatic with grease,” Mayhew wrote. “Along the banks are heaps of indescribable filth… the air has literally the smell of a graveyard.”
Indeed, London’s slums had become a graveyard for many impoverished people who died from cholera or dangerous conditions in unregulated factories. And sometimes, the slums collapsed, killing everyone inside.
Yet, Victorian London was one of the richest cities in the world, making these neighborhoods even starker and more disturbing. Walk the streets of London’s slums in 27 haunting photographs below.
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A photograph of the Bethnal Green slum on London's East End, taken circa 1900. Unknown/Wikimedia Commons
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A pair of boys who lived in London's slums create a golf course out of buckets. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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While some of London's slums were hastily erected shantytowns, other slums were made of centuries-old houses. This photograph from 1877 shows homes in Cloth Fair built after the Great Fire of London in the 17th century. English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Boundary Street, located in the Old Nichols slum, had a high mortality rate in the Victorian era. Many residents worked in local furniture workshops that offered poverty wages.City of London Metropolitan Archives
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A man selling meat for cats walks down the street of a London slum, circa 1900. The man pushes a cart with a cat hiding between the wheels. Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Charles Dickens captured the state of the slums in Oliver Twist, writing of "crazy wooden galleries... with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched... rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter."General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
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A photograph of Dorset Street taken in 1902, after many of the city's slums had been torn down.History Press
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Two Jewish children play on an East End street, circa 1900. Families new to London with little resources were often forced to live in the slums.Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Impoverished residents of London's slums constantly feared eviction. This 1901 photograph shows a family recently evicted from slum housing with all of their possessions. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A 1901 photograph of a slum street in an area marked for demolition.The Print Collector/Getty Images
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Poor women selling flowers at Covent Garden. Circa 1877.LSE Library
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London was not the only British city plagued with terrible slums. This photograph of a Glasgow slum in 1868 shows that conditions were as bad there as in London.British Library
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An Italian ice man selling ices to children and other slum residents. Circa 1877. LSE Library
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One of the oldest photographs of London's slums dates to 1840. This image captures the folly ditch at Jacob's Island, mentioned in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.Unknown/Wikimedia Commons
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Once known as Lambeth Marsh, the area became a slum in the 19th century. This photograph, from 1860, shows Fore Street. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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The people living in London's slums worked hard. By seven years old, many children found work shoveling horse dung, cleaning chimneys, or in factories.Art Images via Getty Images
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A woman identified as Ma Rolinson making a mattress in the slums of Bethnal Green. Circa 1890s.
Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Residents of the slums had to move with all their possessions when they faced eviction. This photograph, circa 1901, shows a family relocating.The Print Collector/Getty Images
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A circa 1877 photograph shows a family living a nomadic life in London. Those who could not afford rent in the slums had to find other places to stay, some slept in coffins for four pennies a night.John Thomson/Wikimedia Commons
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Children gather in the yard in London's slums to play a game of marbles. The photograph dates to 1860. London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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This colorized photograph from circa 1901 is identified as an "old room in slumland."The Print Collector/Getty Images
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Two children in Spitalfields, one of the worst slums in London. Circa 1903. Horace Warner/Wikimedia Commons
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Boarded up houses on Ainstey Street from circa 1903.City of London: London Metropolitan Archives/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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The 1877 book Street Life in London identified the city's homeless population as "crawlers" who slowly moved throughout the city without a permanent home.LSE Library
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When the Thames flooded, the river water overflowed into London's marshiest areas – often the slums. In this 1877 photograph, Londoners affected by flooding stand in front of a rag shop. John Thomson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A circa 1860 photograph shows children on New Street in Vauxhall. As London's slums grew, social reformers pushed for clearance – essentially, destroying the slums. But too often, that left residents with nowhere to go. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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When German philosopher Friedrich Engels visited the slums of Glasgow in 1844, he said, "I did not believe... that so large an amount of filth, crime, misery and disease existed in one spot in any civilized country."British Library
‘The Smell Of A Graveyard:’ 27 Haunting Images Of Life In Victorian England’s Slums
Life In London's Victorian Slums
The London slums were never built to last. Between 1800 and 1850, England's total population doubled, forcing people out of rural areas and into Britain's largest city, London.
The shift left the city desperate for housing. And businessmen stepped in to meet that need – while extracting a profit from London's poorest residents.
Landlords threw up shaky tenements on marshy land there for cheap, and because of city regulations, businessmen could only lease said land for 21 years. The homes were consequently shoddy and collapses claimed the lives of many residents.
Gustave Dore/Wellcome LibraryIn 1872, the artist Gustave Dore created an engraving of London's slums.
The homes flooded when it rained and paper-thin walls barely kept out the cold in winter. Londoners who could not afford rent could instead purchase a night sleeping in coffins lined up in empty warehouses — for the low price of four pennies.
As one architect remarked in 1859, "It seemed scarcely possible that human beings could live. The floors were in holes, the stairs broken down, and the plastering had fallen."
Well-off Londoners derided their neighbors as sinful and lazy, drunkards and thieves. In reality, Londoners who lived in the slums worked hard to survive.
Children in the slums searched for jobs at seven years old. Boys shoveled horse dung or swept chimneys. They also shined shoes. At 13, girls might take a job at a match factory, working 14 hours a day. Others chose sex work.
The suicide rate in the Victorian slums was so high that fishing bodies out of the Thames was a full-time job.
Stigmatizing The Slums
Jason C. McDonald/Wikimedia CommonsThe Old Nichols slums were torn down in the early 20th century, but modern London still shows hints of the past.
A desperate place, the Victorian slums were nonetheless seen by the wealthy as the responsibility of the poor. As one magistrate claimed, the slums were a hub of "squalor, drunkenness, improvidence, lawlessness, immorality and crime."
The slums constantly appeared in the newspapers, too, piquing the curiosity of wealthy families who made disturbing trips there to ogle for themselves.
In the 1890s, the daughter of a wealthy family decided to visit London's slums, wondering if they were truly as terrible as the papers made them sound. When the girl later vanished in the slums, it became front-page news.
Detectives combed through the poorest corners of London until they found her being held for ransom. During her visit, the girl had apparently bragged about her wealthy parents, which led to her kidnapping by a couple of residents hoping for a reward.
But the newspapers also notoriously exaggerated the condition of the slums.
Another man, Thomas Trollope, claimed to have visited the Clerkenwell slums at the age of eight after hearing about the "wickedness" there. Yet to his surprise, Clerkenwell was peaceful.
The wickedness of the Victorian slums had nothing to do with the people, Trollope decided – the slums were wicked because of the conditions the poor faced.
How Reform Changed The Shape Of The City
Wellcome LibraryCharles Booth created a poverty map of London in 1889. The darker colors represent slums.
With such horrific conditions, it's not surprising that cholera and other infectious diseases plagued the slums. And because the slums were associated with disease and crime, well-off Londoners advocated for simply tearing them down.
But at first, slum clearances made the problem worse. In the 1850s and 1860s, the city cleared slums to build railroad tracks. In one decade, 56,000 renters lost their homes – while the landlords received compensation for the loss of property.
Slum removal without a plan for displaced residents did not solve the problem.
By the end of the 19th century, social campaigns helped improve conditions for London's poor. Sanitation plants eliminated the raw sewage that caused cholera outbreaks, and new schools taught impoverished children.
Charles Booth, a social reformer, brought attention to the problem with his poverty map, which highlighted London's poorest streets. Philanthropists funded building and education projects aimed at helping the impoverished. But for many, help came too late.
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.