A Room In Miller’s Court

Many of the poverty-stricken families who lived in the East End of London had, in fact, come to the area from other parts of the country in order to seek a better life.

Some did manage to improve their living conditions; but others, found, often too late, that the Metropolis had little to offer them and they faced an even harsher battle for survival than they would have done had they chosen to stay in their original home towns or villages.

The winter of 1890 to 1891 was a particularly cold one, and many of the poor families in Whitechapel and Spitalfields found themselves battling against the weather as they attempted to eke out a meagre living doing whatever tasks or odd jobs happened to come their way.

On Saturday the 10th of January, 1891, The Illustrated London News, published an article for which an artist and a reporter had paid a visit to the East End in order to report back on some of the families and the hardships they faced.

Intriguingly, the location they chose to visit was Millers’ Court.

The article read:-


“The prolonged severe wintry weather during the last December and first January weeks must have caused much suffering to the very poor, some of whom are “always with us”; for the want of fuel and warm clothing, as well as of nourishing food, is cruel destitution in cold weather.

There are doubtless, at this season, in different parts of London – in the crowded district between Lincoln’s Inn-fields and St. Martin’s-lane, in the bye-streets of Westminster and Chelsea, in Clerkenwell, and in Lambeth and Southwark, as well as in East London – many persons and families in real distress.


The present total amount of such helpless poverty is believed, on the safest reports and computations, not at all to exceed the average at this time of the year.

There is apparently less difficulty than in former years of finding employment for unskilled able-bodied labourers, for some of the suburban vestries – that of Hampstead for instance -could hardly get five or six men together for the work of clearing the roads of snow; and at the Victoria and Albert Docks, which have seldom been fuller of ships, the men hired to unload corn for Canadian steamers, earning at the rate of twelve shillings and sixpence a day, struck for higher wages.

A poverty stricken elderly couple in their room.
From The Illustrated London News, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The Mary Evans Picture Library.


It is the aged and the infirm, the forlorn women, too often deserted wives, the feeble persons cast adrift by the wreck of homes, perhaps far off in the country, and permitted by careless neighbours to come to London in quest of relatives or friends whom they fail to find, or who cannot assist them – it is these classes of people who mostly suffer.

They are not seen much in the streets, but they starve, or at best live wretchedly by ill-paid and precarious work, if they know how to get it, which few strangers to London can know; and only the “district visitors,” the ministers of religion, or the agents of well-organised systematic charity, acquainted with the locality and its inhabitants, can discover these cases, or can test the reality of their needs.


Our Artist, under trustworthy guidance, has gone his rounds in Whitechapel and the neighbourhood: the subjects of his Sketches are such we have generally described.

Here is a decent old couple who make such cheap wire articles as toasting-forks, gridirons, and the like, carrying them about in the evening for sale the streets. They may bring home a shilling or two, but it is a poor livelihood; their meals are nothing but a piece of bread and some weak tea; their companion is a stray cat. It is long since either the old man or his old wife could buy any clothes, and his boots are so unsound that he has wet feet at his first step in the miry snow.

There is family, a mason’s labourer, his sick wife, and a daughter – the girl does not figure in this sketch – who came up from Lancashire on Christmas Eve.

The family in their room.
From The Illustrated London News, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The Mary Evans Picture Library.


It is a pity that they, and hundreds monthly who are like them, should ever be encouraged to come to London.

Of course, he can get no work here; nobody knows him; and he pays fourpence a night for his own bed in a lodging-house, while the room occupied his wife and daughter costs a shilling a night.

The cost of lodging or apartments in London is alone sufficient reason why the poor all over England should not think of seeking to better their condition by removing to this overburdened Metropolis without assured employment. This mistaken practice is really the main cause of nearly all the extreme poverty, beyond that occasioned by accident or by personal misconduct, that is to be deplored in London life.”