The Wealthiest City In The World

By the mid 1880s, the East End of London, and the district of Whitechapel in particular, was coming to be seen as a lawless and savage territory, in which official neglect had resulted in the emergence of a lawless population, in many cases devoid of morals and basic human decency, living alongside an honest poor populace that lived in dire poverty as it struggled to make ends meet.


Clergymen were even preaching sermons that warned of the consequences if something was not done to check the poverty and moral malaise with which the East End had become synonymous.

The Northampton Mercury, on Saturday 15th March 1884, published the text of one such sermon:-


Continuing his series of sermons to young men, the Rev. T. Gasquoine, at Commercial-street Chapel, on Sunday evening, preached to a large congregation on “The Wealthiest City in the World.”

The rev. gentleman took for his text Ezekiel xvi., 49:- “Behold this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hands of the poor and needy.”

Following some introductory remarks, in which the preacher elucidated his contention that London is the greatest city which the world has ever seen, he said, on the other hand, it might well be called the city of broken hearts, the city of despair, the city of the dead – the most squalid, the most miserable city in the world.

Missionaries visiting the residents of a London slum in the 19th century.
A London Slum In The Late 19th Century


Its godliness and its unrighteousness were great. It was at once the wealthiest city in the world and the poorest in the land. London did not wear its heart on its sleeve. It was a city of awful secrets; and in proceeding to call attention to those flaunting resorts of the wretched and the poor, the gin palaces, he said they seemed to be the only business in the slums out of which a fortune was made.

In Euston-road there was one public-house to every 100 people, and remarking the absence of the butcher and baker’s shops in such localities, he said it made one wonder what the poor found to eat, rather than what they found to drink.


The theory of a depraved taste, he contended, was not sufficient to account for the excessive drinking of the outcast poor of London. The drinking saloon was, as Mr. Sims said, a comparative heaven to the hell of their pestilential homes.

Drink was sustenance for these people, and gave them Dutch courage to go on living in such sties as the places they occupied.

The facts of the whole subject, Mr. Gasquoine went on to say, were all placed before them in the pamphlets, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London and How the Poor Live, at least, as far as they could be stated in English print.


No respectable printer, it was said, would print; certainly no decent families would permit even the driest statement of the horrors and infamies discovered in one brief visitation from house to house.

So far, indeed, from making the worst of his facts that evening, he had been compelled to tone down everything, and wholly omit what most needed to be known, or the ears of his hearers would have been insufferably outraged.


Leaving out of consideration altogether the question of crime, and dealing only with that of poverty, the preacher depicted several shocking cases which had been discovered in the slums London, and duly reported by unquestionable authorities; and he said such cases might be multiplied hundreds and thousands, exhibiting misery enough to shock any heart which was not first filled with a feeling akin to despair.

But that feeling must not be allowed to exist now that the cries of the poor which for so long had gone to His ears were beginning to ring in the ears of His more favoured children.

Calling attention to an article contributed to the current number of the National Review by Lady John Manners, on How the rich live in the wealthiest city of the world and in their country houses, Mr. Gasquoine quoted some of the astonishing statistics enumerated, and pointed out that great poverty frequently existed in the closest proximity to the dwellings of the rich. They might almost say, in fact, that in every mews a mission field might be found.


It was not to be assumed that in all cases of wretched poverty there was unwillingness to work. Far otherwise. It was pleasant to accept, as they could do without hesitation, the assurance of those who had made authoritative inquiry into the condition of these districts, that those who earned their bread by honest labour far outnumbered the dishonest.

Speaking of the wages in many cases received, he alluded to the wretchedly small remuneration for shirt making, and said one woman could earn in a day one shilling for making a pair of tweed trousers, but then the day was one of 17 hours – from five in the morning till ten at night, with no pause for meals, but scanty crust and well watered tea taken as she worked.


Look at the temptations to crime for the very young in such ill paid labour.

A little girl would make 10s. 6d. a week by thieving, but what would she earn by matchbox making – 2d. per gross, and the maker had to find her own fire for drying the boxes and her own paste and string.

Before she could gain as much as the young thief she must make 56 gross a week, or 1,296 per day, which was far away beyond the power of the strongest adult.

What was wanted to remedy this state of things was a more honourable adjustment of the profits of trade. The difficulty was not met by the question – how would the public like to pay more for their goods ? Before the goods reached the public some readjustment should be made.

A match-box maker sitting at a table at work.
A Match-Box Maker At Work. From The Mothers’ Companion, Friday, 5th January, 1894. Copyright, The British Library Board.


He had not spoken of the crime of the wealthiest city in the world or of the vast numbers who never attended any place of Christian worship. Indeed, in view of need so appalling, this latter seemed almost a secondary matter.

But it was startling to learn that in London there was, speaking in round numbers, a population equal to that of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and York, for whom there was not even accommodation for worship if all the available people chose to worship together.

Some dark pictures, however, might be drawn as to the willingness to worship ; und he gave two instances.

Out of 2,290 persons living in consecutive houses at Bow Common, only 88 parents and 47 children attended public worship; while in the neighbourhood of Old Ford, in 147 consecutive houses, inhabited for the most part by the respectable working classes, 113 families out 212 never, under any circumstances, attended any place of worship.


Alluding to the mixed population the metropolis, Mr. Gasquoine quoted figures obtained some few years ago, which, he said, with some sad enlargement, might be accepted now.

London, he pointed out, contained 100,000 winter tramps, 40,000 costers, 30,000 paupers in unions, more Jews than were to be found in all Palestine.

66,000 of the criminal classes were committed in one year, of whom only 7,000 could read and write; and he said that they had cause to be thankful that recent Education Acts had made a perceptible diminution in our criminal records, and such record of intellectual inability.


If they analysed the population and compared the numbers of the different classes with, say, a town of 10,000 persons, they would find that the 3,000,000 of people in London contained as many Jews as would fill two such towns, as many workers on the Sunday as would fill ten, and as many habitual gin drinkers as would fill 14.

More persons than would fill ten towns were taken every year the street state of intoxication.

Two towns might be filled with fallen women, one with gamblers, two with children trained in crime, three with thieves and receivers of stolen goods, half a town with Italians, two with French, four with Germans, one with Greeks, while there were as many Irish as would fill the city of Dublin, and more Roman Catholics than would fill the city of Rome.

It was some 15 years since this estimate was made, and what a sad comment was it to their labours for the amelioration of society that it could be still repeated without fear of much mistake.

In not a few instances the figures would need to be enlarged, but he wished to lay emphasis on the thought that they were not called, in view of need so appalling, to yield to despair.

Dark as was the prospect, it was part due to the fact that they had brought themselves to look at it.

There were alarming symptoms enough of moral disorder, which, if left alone, would work as completely the ruin of this kingdom as the neglected dangers of the ancient empire of Rome brought it to the dust.

But, thank God they had brought themselves to look at the danger.


Bad as the condition of things was now, it was not so bad as it could have been painted a few years ago.

There was the brave honesty of the poor in face of temptation; there was the beautiful kindness the poor discovered again and again in hidden charities to those a little more desolate than themselves; and there was the true godliness of the poor the struggle and the upward tendencies to which the pure and the brave were ever called.

But they would not have learned the lessons of their reflections Sunday by Sunday on some of the English difficulties in social life, unless they were prepared to go much farther than this.


All along he had been trying to point out to them how the different classes of society were not separated from each other in their sufferings and prosperity, either material or moral, by impassable gulfs; and besides all merely personal influences, in blessing however large, there was common action needing to be taken, there were natural movements which must be made.


Some steps had already been taken, but in their wake they brought not only blessing, but some fresh hindrances and burdens.

The Artizans’ Dwellings Act swept away foul rookeries, but they might only drive away people unable to pay the higher rental charged for better homes which took their places.

Education Acts had claimed that every sane English child should receive some education and mental preparation for the battle of life; but until all fees were swept away from our public elementary schools, and education was provided for the nation’s children by the people’s rates – all aspect of charity being swept away with such provision – the more rigorous and urgent the educational claims of these Acts were, the more must they bring an unequal burden to rest on the parents of the poor.


Remarking the promise of the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the housing of the poor, he said there were steps in altogether other directions still needed.

It was not for nothing that he had asked his hearers on one Sunday to consider the condition of our agricultural labourers, and on another some of the startling anomalies in the condition of the wealthiest city in the world.

These were not two different subjects, but part of one great subject – the material, moral and spiritual progress of this dear England of ours.


Our cities were becoming overcrowded by men and women who could not make a proper living, whilst the country was becoming denuded of population which ought to find joy to live in the peaceful plains and watered hills of this beautiful land.

We needed to stop this outflowing from the country to the cities at its source; but it would not be done without alterations to our land laws, which would bring blessings upon all classes, and perhaps most of all upon those highest classes whom they might seem for a while to be depriving of too much coveted possessions.

He was urging no wild schemes of confiscation, but only those which they themselves might be brought to see needed by the common weal.


He could take them to an English parish where the agricultural labourers were forced to live in houses in which morals could be preserved decent only by the power of inward purity born of Christian faith; and from the training possible in such homes the young were necessarily drafted to our towns and cities, ill-prepared for the sterner battles of life he had depicted.

He could take them to another parish – a sample, he feared, of many others – where home after home of the poor had been razed to the ground, to make a more lordly domain.

We needed, he contended, to the passing downward of the operation of good law, which should not only secure to the tenant farmers rights which were naturally theirs, and which must bless others with themselves, but should also give to the labourers corresponding joys and inspirations of hope, in a much surer tenure of their cottage holdings, as dependent on, and yet independent of, the farmer, as needed to be dependent on, and yet independent of the owner of the soil.

They were members one of another. If one member suffered, all the others suffered with him; and England was awaking to learn this in the name of the common Father of men.

And he mentioned last, only because he would give a chief place to that for which all other reforms were only a preparing of the way, the proclamation, in the gladdest tones, of that free Gospel of the grace of Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty, might be more rich.


Every day a band of noble-hearted City missionaries, many hundreds strong, were at their never-ceasing work among the homes of the London poor. Faithful men in Christian churches were awaking to a new fervour and devotion. Young graduates of Oxford were beginning to respond to the piteous appeal of these needs.

A band of them had determined on working together in the East End of London, supporting themselves in their usual avocations at the bar, and giving up time which might have been spent in mere pleasure.


And he would tell them why he thought so much of the preaching of the Gospel.

To those to whom that Gospel truly came it brought enlargement of soul, widening of vision. It brought hopes which rose above the pressing burdens, the hard hindrances, the almost overwhelming difficulties of the present.

Even though burden and difficulty and hindrance remained, this unborn hope gave new tone to life. There was an earnest of blessing, falling not in its fulness here, but awaiting them yonder in a sinless, joyful world.”