The Poor Of London Bethnal Green

As the 19th century progressed, and the wealthy grew wealthier and the poor grew poorer, many philanthropists and newspaper reporters began turning their attention to the horror of the living conditions the poor residents of the East End of London.

The child mortality rate was shameful, and, to those who wished to look, it soon became apparent that many of the district’s children were being killed by the very air that they breathed, the water that they drank and the crowded unsanitary dwellings in which their families lived.

The problem for many, however, was that, if they complained, their landlords would simply evict them, and, should this happen, their lives in the ramshackle, tumbledown tenements in Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, would be replaced by life on the streets or in the dreaded Workhouse.


But, by the 186o’s, some newspapers were beginning to take notice of the horrific conditions in the East End of London, and were lending their powerful voices to the downcast poor, with the result that some of those poverty-stricken residents felt emboldened enough to speak out and complain to the authorities.

However, as the following article, which appeared in The Penny Illustrated Paper on Saturday, 10th October 1863, makes clear, the local authorities were often complicit, – either through negligence or fraud – or sometimes both, in allowing the dreadful living conditions to go unchecked, and thus condemning more children to die in early childhood.

The article read:-


“For the third time within a fortnight, we have to report a Coroner’s inquest on children poisoned by impure air in Bethnal Green.

The first of these cases occurred in Hollybush-lane – the first that was the subject of enquiry, but not by many the first that had occurred. Four children had died from the same causes, in the same house, within four weeks. The life of the fifth was saved only by its removal to a purer atmosphere.

Now we have to speak of a series of deaths under exactly similar condition in the same unfortunate district.

Thorold Square is a nest of wretched little houses, not far from Holly-bush Lane, and inhabited, like it, by weavers, shoemakers and outdoor labourers.

A tailor and his family in a room at 10 Hollybush Place.
A Military Tailor And His Family In Their Room At 10 Hollybush Place. From The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In one of these lived a family named Rogers.

Two of their eight children died within a few days of each other. A third, twelve years old, sickened rapidly and died at the London Hospital, to which his grandmother had carried him. A fourth and fifth died also – all within a month! The boy who died at the hospital was the subject of an inquest there.

The evidence of a neighbour, George Stratford, proved the existence of things amply sufficient to kill every child in the place; and that out of twenty children recently attacked by illness, eleven or twelve had died.

But the hospital physician was of opinion that, in this particular case, the cause of death was disease of the kidneys, and the Jury returned a verdict to that effect.

Mr. Coroner Humphreys, however, very properly ordered an inquest on the two children lying dead at their parents’ miserable dwelling, and the inquiry came off last Saturday.


It began with a visit by the jury to the scene of such a frightful mortality.

They saw for themselves the twenty-two houses in which twelve children had died within a few weeks.

They inspected the rooms in which, for the payment of half-a-crown a week, a family is privileged to poison itself at the rate of five children per month.

They viewed – and recoiled disgusted from the sight – cesspools and gutters, and dust holes, in which every denomination of filth was suffered to stagnate under the nostrils of human beings, formed by nature to require pure air equally with wholesome food.

They were shown the water supply of the square, in the form of a tank, which received water from the main, and dispensed it, if at all, through a pump choked with black mud and often as dry as a dead tree.

And then they took the evidence of witnesses, who were carefully cross-examined by a legal gentleman retained by the landlord of these beautiful dwellings for the defence of his reputation and his property.

From The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863. Copyright, The British Library Board.
A Garret Room At 10 Hollybush Place.


There was as little question as to the cause of death as to the condition of the dwellings.

Dr. Gay, the physician who had been instructed to make a post-mortem examination, would admit no doubt at all of the nature of the fatal malady. The children had been poisoned by foul air. There was no organic disease. There had been no lack of nourishment. The blood had been infected through the lungs. The very source of vitality had been sapped away. It was a clear case of child-murder.

Those twelve helpless infants, that had died in the same way, had been as really massacred as the innocents of Bethlehem.


But was anyone to blame?

The poor mother of the five dead children cast no blame and made no complaint. She even tried to excuse the house and its owner. She had smelt no foul smells, and had nothing to say against the water supply.

Neither had the father any reproach to cast upon the surroundings of the one room in which he and his eight children had lived, till death thinned them down to three.

Poor fellow; he was in arrears with his rent of half-a-crown a week, and had been forgiven the debt.

His silence is, perhaps, more sad to contemplate than the grave of those five little ones.

But there were neighbours who were not in arrears, or who had already suffered the penalty of that imprudence.


The weavers of Bethnal-green have not all been crushed into silent submission to their hard lot.

One of them, George Stratford, had dared to write to the Home Secretary, and got back an abstract of the Acts that might afford him redress.

To the collector of the rents he had often complained of the reeking cesspools and the pump from which no water could be drawn during three weeks of hot weather. He had been laughed at by that functionary, but had resolutely betaken himself to the Queens Government – undismayed by the example of distraint on tenants “who had made a row about the water.”

Mrs. Clayborne, too, had carried her complaint to the Townhall – the seat of local government – and had been told there to take one of the big houses by Victoria Park.

James White, a labourer, had applied to the Inspector of Nuisances for relief from the trifling inconvenience of being sick every morning and finding a spoonful of mud in his water-bottle; but was told that he looked very well.

Notice to quit followed the interview.

Another ejected tenant – turned into the streets at night with his wife and four children – had previously complained of the water and the cesspools.

Summing up the evidence, the Coroner remarked on the circumstance that complaint was treated as an offence and silence purchased by the forgiveness of the rent.

The jury – but not till after some deliberation – returned a verdict of death from impure air, bad water, and insufficient drainage.

A family in their Bethnal Green hovel.
From The Penny Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday, 10th October, 1863. Copyright, The British Library Board.


There the matter might rest if those poor people – the helpless victims of these shameful wrongs -had not found in the press a voice powerful enough to enforce their unheeded complaints.

It is but too clear that the landlord and the local authorities have been cruelly negligent of their duties.


The former seems to have been content – though living within a mile of the spot – to take his rents through a collector, and leave his poor tenants to be poisoned by causes which the expenditure of a week’s rental would have removed.

The twenty-two houses, of three rooms each, yielded him seven or eight pounds a week at the rent mentioned by the witnesses. Not a shilling a week appears to have been spent in return on repairs, cleansing, or drainage. Dilapidated, filthy, plague-stricken dens, they were allowed to moulder on year after year, and the weaker portion of their three hundred and fifty inhabitants to die off like a litter of diseased pigs.

Mr. Waring may plead in excuse for such heartless apathy the example of many titled and wealthy landlords, the heirs of great names and fine estates.


But the vestry of Bethnal-green cannot so excuse itself.

The Legislature has cast on them the duty of protecting poverty against the unfeeling selfishness of property.

Parliament has armed them with the power of suppressing nuisances that propagate disease, and peril life, and burden the poor-rates and the hospitals.

Nor have they allowed these powers to lie quite dormant.

They have a sanitary inspector and medical officers.

What have these functionaries been about?


Now, indeed, they are busy enough. “A Full and searching investigation” has been commenced. A vestry meeting is convened. Mr. Waring is to be compelled to clear away the fever nest in which he has hatched so many golden eggs.

Thorold-square and Hollybush-lane are to be thoroughly cleansed.

We shall hear no more of children dying there from a manufactured plague.


But no amount of activity and reformation in the future can wholly expiate the past.

There is no emptying those crowded little pauper graves, and giving back to their parents and to society the victims of an unchristian and barbarous neglect.

We call upon the vestry not only to continue the examination that has been commenced, but to extend it – to inquire into the conduct of their own officers. It is in evidence, on oath, that complaints to the local authorities were utterly unheeded until an appeal had been made to the Home Office and a Government inspector sent down. If this is true, it is an opprobrium to the neighbourhood. Not only have the poor been cruelly wronged, but the ratepayers have been defrauded of the service which is their due.


Life in Bethnal-green is to tens of thousands, and must be for some time to come, we fear, a sad and hard lot – a sore struggle with penury and privation.

But it need not be a condemnation to slow poisoning with muddy water and foul air.

It must not be.

Health, after all, is a free gift. and may be cheaply preserved. In the name of the Giver of all Life, let not the gifts be wasted by evils against which the poorest have a right to effectual protection.”