The Poverty Problem In London

The grinding poverty in the East End of London occupied the minds of politicians and philanthropists alike throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

Even before the Jack the Ripper murders helped alert people to the menace that the unchecked social degradation in the poorer parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields posed, people were warning that something had to be done about the harshness of the living conditions in the area.


In 1889, the London dockers went on strike for better pay, and their demands were eventually agreed to with the guarantee of a minimum rate of pay of sixpence an hour.

Although this victory led to better pay and better living conditions for the dockworkers, when news spread throughout the country that such wages were available in London, poverty-stricken agricultural workers began gravitating towards London hoping for a share of the available pay packets.

In addition, a similar strike by tailors in the sweatshops had encouraged more of the mass immigration of low-class Jews from Eastern Europe that had been gaining momentum since the early 1880’s.

They arrived at the London Docks and sets about seeking employment in the sweatshops of the East End of London.


Many of these new arrivals found that the promised employment was, in fact, a fallacy; but, once they had arrived, they lacked the means to return to their original lives and became stuck in the rut of the grinding poverty that was the daily lot of many of the inhabitants in the East End of London.


With winter fast approaching, in October, 1889, the authorities found themselves confronted with a problem that they simply weren’t prepared for.

What to do with the huge number of economic migrants that were arriving en masse from all parts f the country and from Eastern Europe.

The Shields Daily Gazette, on Saturday, 19th October, 1889, published the following article about the genuine spectre of poverty and unemployment that was growing across East London.

Sir Edmund Hay Currie (1834 – 1913), who is mentioned in the article, was a businessman, philanthropist and educationist who had served on the first School Board in Tower Hamlets in the 1870’s and who, at the time of the article was a trustee of the East End’s People’s Palace.

“London is threatened with a deluge of destitution during the coming winter, which is sending a chill to the hearts of philanthropists, and is appalling the authorities charged with the administration of relief.

Under normal conditions, the poverty problem in the East-end of the metropolis has baffled all attempts to cope with it.

The vast mass of oppressed humanity have groaned and sweltered in spite of every endeavour to relieve their agonies.

A group of homeless men gather in the Salvation Army yard.
Homeless Men In The Salvation Army Yard.


But now it seems the difficulty is to be increased by an unusual inrush of famishing unfortunates from the provinces and from abroad.

Lured by learning about the dockers’ victory, and hearing stories of work in plenty at sixpence an hour to be obtained by all who care to apply, large numbers of men are crowding London from the agricultural villages only to discover disappointment and to suffer distress.

Nothing can more forcibly expose the terrible acuteness of the struggle for bread which is being waged in this country among the unskilled labourers, than the immense rush of men wherever any chance of an opening is reported.

Men inside their East End lodging.
New Arrivals Inside An East End Slum Dwelling.


But this is not all.

During the strike of the tailors, advertisements were inserted in several of the principal foreign papers holding out inducements which have tempted hordes of destitute Jews from Germany and Poland, who expected that any kind of acquaintance with the needle would secure for them remunerative employment.


Their dismay and distress on finding the true state of affairs cannot easily be described.

Every occupation to which they might turn is already crowded to suffocation, and so they are face to face with hopeless want.

Return to their native districts is impossible, and so they must remain to augment the terribleness of life in the low depths of the proudest and richest city in the world.

The spectacle thus presented is unspeakably saddening.


Sir Edmund Hay Curry [sic] has sounded a wise warning in good time.

Foreseeing the impoverishment and suffering which are hastening upon the metropolis, he is eagerly exhorting to diligence in preparations for the bestowal of relief.

Like all who are familiar with the subject, he inveighs strongly against the system of indiscriminate doles, which, he contends, generally tend to aggravate and seldom alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

Strenuously, and as we think with sound judgment, he advises all relief committees to seek the assistance, and work through the channels of the Poor Law Guardians.


This plan is also supported by the Rev. S. A. Barnett, the well-known, wise, and laborious East End clergyman.


The problems of London have interest for the inhabitants of every district in the kingdom, and the attempts to cope with the advancing flood of pauperism amid the severities of the winter months will be watched with painful interest, and also we hope helped by liberal hands outside the metropolitan radius.

The problems connected with the poor in England and Scotland are very urgent, and adequate recognition of the fact must be shewn by the Liberal leaders.

Throughout the country, there is a demand for a courageous policy of social amelioration.”