Whitechapel 1866

The Dunfermline Saturday Press, on Saturday, 18th August 1866, took issue with claims that had been made that London was a city that could be justifiably proud of its sanitary system.


A visit to Whitechapel and Stepney is about the best practical illustration that I know of the proverb “that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”

There is an amount misery, and squalidness, and filth, in these quarters that can scarcely be conceived of.

Londoners flatter themselves about many things. They fondly imagine that they have the best policemen in the kingdom, and sneer at the Dublin Irishmen and the Glasgow Celts, but still they don’t trust their models and can’t prevent them sometimes breaking the heads of the lieges – notably in the public parks.


They laud the virtues of brick over stone, and declare London the finest city in the world.

Paris is more ornamental they admit, but not so useful.

They are deeply impressed by the conviction that England is the best country in the world, and that London is the best part of England.

When the learning of Germans and the artistic taste of Frenchmen and Italians is brought before them, they half disbelieve your facts; and if driven into a corner, revert to the old fistic argument that a Londoner is more than a match for a dozen foreigners of any description.


But all these delusions dwindle into insignificance compared with a piece of self-laudation which appeared in one of the morning papers this week.

It was there seriously stated that the decrease in the number of deaths from cholera, and the fact that it had never obtained firm footing, were entirely due to “the magnificent sanitary arrangements” of the metropolis.

Surely the writer of these words had never been farther east than the bank, or penetrated up one of the closes in Islington or Westminster.

Take the Saltmarket of Glasgow and the lowest dens of the old town of Edinburgh, and pile the filth of them together, and you will more than match them in Mile-End, Stepney, in Ratcliff, and in a dozen districts I could name.

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


For myself, I only know them since the Boards of Health have professed to clean them out and whitewash them; but take them now, at their best, and it is sickening to walk through them.

In Ratcliff there is a court called Harris Court, surrounded by thirteen others which branch off from it, and all are in a similar state of abomination and dilapidation.

Harris Court is paved with small round boulders such as you see in country towns. The inhabitants have no water on the premises, and a pipe is turned on in the court for half an hour each day, except Sundays, and then not at all. This pipe has no tap to it, for landlords say taps are stolen; so those wanting water must wait their turn and catch it while it runs, and if there chance to be too many to be supplied before it stops, the luckless ones must either wait till the next day or beg from their more fortunate neighbours.

Add to this, that the place is a favourite arena for faction fights – that thereby the stairs are without banisters, and in some places with gaps in the steps, the missing materials having formed offensive and defensive weapons.


The inhabitants are principally Irish, with a few London castaways among them. They are not particular as to what sort of garbage they throw out of doors, so that the stench is horrible.

At ordinary times it is not over safe to venture among them, but now that sickness has thinned them, they are glad to see any one with a good coat on his back, in hopes that he may belong to the Local Board or some authority, and be come to improve their condition.


This which I have mentioned is no solitary instance.

Thus, No. 1 Bull Lane, Limehouse, is occupied by eleven families who get their water in the same way, and who throw their refuse out into the back yard, where it festers in the sun and pollutes the neighbourhood.

In London Street, people are living in cellars, and some of them keep upwards of a dozen dogs. Finch Lane in Bow is horribly filthy. Gin Alley and Gill Street, Limehouse, are the same, and hundreds of others which might be mentioned.

And yet in the face all this to mention our “magnificent sanitary arrangements.”

Providentially, however, in spite of it all, the cholera has abated and the deaths are much more rare. Whether it is merely lull or not, we of course cannot tell, but we hope for the best.


The other night when I was at the London Hospital, I observed a little theatre almost next door to it.

Seeing that it was in the very heart of the cholera district, and being curious to know how the people amused themselves with such a visitor among them I entered.

The place was crammed to the ceiling.

When I went in Sir Giles something was on the point of separating two ardent lovers, and consigning them to horrible tortures, when suddenly the father of the lady who had himself previously been tortured and scarred, appeared upon the scene as great in authority, released the captives, arrested Sir Giles, and proceeded to deliver a speech, the gist of which was, ” RR-Revenge, R-R Revenge, for every torture I have suffered he shall suffer fourfold – Oh yes! Ah! ”

And so he ran on uttering sentiments worthy of a devil, and at each repetition, the audience applauded and almost drowned his voice with “Brayvos.”


I had seen enough. Poor wretches!

The plague was then at its height, and God knows bow many of them were dead ere the morning.