In Darkest London 1891

In 1890, General William Booth )1829 – 1912) published In Darkest England, and the Way Out, in which  he proposed to remedy the evils caused by poverty, such as vice, by establishing homes for the homeless, training establishments that could prepare emigrants for a new life in the overseas colonies, rescue homes for fallen women, homes for released prisoners, legal aid for paupers, and aid for alcoholics.

It was a radical publication, tackling as it did issues that had been concerning the socially aware and newspapers columnists for many years, and his ideas received wide public support, with money flooding into the fund that Booth set up to establish his envisaged utopian society.

The book also inspired many reporters to go and investigate for themselves the living conditions of the poor all over the land.

The East End, thanks to the reporting of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, had, by this time, become synonymous with the conditions that Booth railed against in his tome, and so many journalists, who were London based, decided to report on conditions in the East End of London, and articles on “Darkest London” began to appear.


One such article appeared in The Penny Illustrated Paper, on Saturday, 10th January, 189.

It was accompanied by a series of sketches, each of which purported to show the characters who were being referred to in the article.

The article read:-


“At a time when General Booth has caused attention to the state of wretchedness that is round about us in his widely circulated work entitled “In Darkest England”, I think that a few words upon what is to be seen any day, not many miles away from the heart of this big city of ours, may not be amiss.

No one, (except for those who are compelled to go among the poor) can comprehend the amount of misery, vice, and evils of all sorts to be seen in Darkest London, for so it must be called.

Some of the people in Darkest London.
The Inhabitants Of Darkest London. From The Penny Illustrated paper, Saturday, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Here people may be found herding together like the lower animals.

There may be found the thief, the pickpocket, and every grade of our criminal classes.

Here may be found all those hundreds of people who, day by day, throng our streets in the hope of picking up something in the way of work so as to keep body and soul together.


East and west, and south and north, may be found houses that are a disgrace to any landlord or civilised country; dens wherein human beings huddle together like herrings in a barrel; alleys and passages where even the police hardly dare to show their faces singly.

In my drawing, the reader will see depicted a room occupied by a matchmaker and her family.

This is a very fair specimen of one of these insanitary dwellings. This room costs the tenant 1s. 3d. a week. Think of it! – 1s. 3d. for a den like that!

There were fourteen rooms in the house, and this was the cheapest rented.

In side the matchmakers abode.
From The Penny Illustrated Ppaper, Saturday, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Taking, therefore, the rent per house at the rent charged for the one room shown, the landlord received £45 10s. per annum for a house that is a simple disgrace for any sanitary authority to allow to exist.

The water in the cistern was so foul that it could not be used; and as for sanitary arrangements, why, there were none.

The staircase shown in the drawing was sketched in the same house.

I asked the agent why nothing was done in the way of repairing these stairs, and received the reply that if they were repaired tomorrow they would be as bad again the next day, as the tenants would only break them up for firing.

The staircase.
From The peoples Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


A case came under my notice of a house where some tenants had to be evicted for non-payment of rent.

The agent had a very simple way of evicting: he got two men to take all the windows out.

Well, the people left, and, when the agent went to look at the house, hardly a vestige of woodwork was left: the late tenants had taken everything, even the staircase, away with them.

It is often the case that the donkey belonging to a costermonger is better fed and housed than his own family


The Matchbox-Maker (whose room I have shown) had to walk to the factory with her boxes after she had made them, nearly six and a half miles there and back.

She can only carry two gross, for which she received fivepence.

I asked her how many she could make in a day. She said that, if the days were long, she, with the help of her two children, could make four gross.

She only got four days’ full work a week, therefore these people, after paying rent, had two shillings and a penny to feed and clothe themselves with.


Thus it is with many of the nearly tenth part of our entire population.

It is simply impossible to give anything like a full report of East-End Life.

It would take more room in the Penny Illustrated Paper than the editor could possibly spare.


The price of labour is the chief cause of all this misery, caused by the great immigrations of foreign labour.

At the present moment, nearly every other man you meet in the street is a foreigner, refugees from other countries.

This in some way ought to be stopped. Let every country look after its own poor, and not, as some are doing, send them over here, where we have too many poor already.

A sketch showing a man and woman who were Polish refugees.
From The Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 10th January, 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


I hope at some future time to show you some of the Lodging Houses and their inhabitant, in the meantime I hope that those of my readers who are interested in General Booth’s ideas will go and see for themselves, and, if they feel disposed to give something to alleviate some of this suffering, there is not only the General’s fund, but many other deserving charities which have been, for a number of years already, working manfully to contend against those evils that exist in Darkest London.”