Economy, Society and Politics in 19th Century London

10 October 2016

Indeed, studying the large-scale improvement scheme of London’s streets in the nineteenth century brings to light the radical change in sanitation levels, the presence of poverty and social disparity which was still rife and the advent of leisure and a growing middle class, visible in new public spaces which continue on from the street, such as parks and gardens. These ideas will form around the analysis of three pieces of visual art dating from nineteenth century London. Let us first look at Figure 1 of the crossing sweeper and the lady. In this painting by William Powell Frith is depicted a typical street scene of Victorian London.

Indeed, crossing sweepers were very present, as expressed by Henry Mayhew in his extensive study of London, London Labour and the London Poor: “We can scarcely walk along a street of any extent, or pass through a square of the least pretensions to “gentility”, without meeting one or more of these private scavengers. ” (Mayhew, 1861). These ‘scavengers’ constituted a large part of London’s poor; in the painting the young boy offering his services is barefooted, his trousers and vest ripped and his overall appearance one of ruggedness and misery.

This is perfectly contrasted by the lady, who on the contrary is in luxurious attire; a velvet overall covering her and her leather boots shining. Behind her stand white and grandiose buildings with stucco facades which place the painting somewhere in West London. As explained by Bills (2004) the presence of a Notting Hill omnibus and the painter’s familiarity with Lancaster Gate suggests the painting could more precisely be inspired from the Notting Hill area. Beyond the very organisation of the painting however is its message.

The lady, who is trying to cross the street whilst ignoring the young boy who asks for money, is walking by foot rather than travelling by carriage, which would have been expected by a woman of her stature at the beginning of the century. This change in behaviour was brought about by the major development scheme to clear the streets of London organized by the Metropolitan Board of Works. At the start of the century, sewage management was highly inefficient and, needless to say, extremely unhygienic.

Before the research completed by pioneering physician John Snow, the miasmatic theory was largely held that disease was spread through the air rather than, as Mr Snow elucidated, through water, which he demonstrated to cause the spread of cholera. This new information, along with the Great Stink of 1858, compelled legislators to better manage London’s sewage works. The city moved from private enterprise of water supplies and sewage treatments to modern hydrological systems that worked as a whole.

By 1855, the Metropolis Management Act was passed which created the Metropolitan Board of Works, an authority aimed towards developing London’s infrastructure in such a way that would cover all boroughs of the city, regardless of municipal governments. The Board of Works created a complex system of intercepting sewers, including fourteen pumping stations and two wastewater treatment plants (Bruce, 1969). Not only were the streets deodorized, they were also cleaner and starting to become more safe and hygienic, paved by granite and macadam. In addition, electric street lights were introduced around 1880 to modernize the urban experience.

In a study of London’s transformation, urban technologies are explained as shaping London; “on the one hand, they could shield the eyes and ears of genteel urbanites from the offensive and barbarous workings of backstreet butchers. On the other, they enhanced the sensory vocabulary of London’s populations, first through gas lamps and later via electric lighting. ” (Mort & Ogborn, 2004). This concealment process was as effective for odour as it was for unsightly areas. Pooley (1984) talks about bus and tram routes which went through main streets lined with shops, by design hiding the unsanitary living courts below.

He describes how a suburban dweller could then be oblivious to ‘unsightliness’: “the suburban dweller could thus avoid living in, and may even have been unaware of, the unhealthy districts with their polluted water supply, inefficient street cleansing, insanitary houses and all the other negative externalities associated with inner-city living. ” These slums or rookeries were therefore to be cut off or cut out by the Metropolitan Board of Works street clearances and other public transportation schemes.

Indeed, entire areas were pulled down in the hope to reduce poverty and restore cleaner air as well as increase visibility on social differences between classes. Unfortunately, though the long-term effect of this scheme was eventually successful, the immediate outcome is believed to have been very severe; “as land values rose, slum housing was demolished, forcing those with limited geographical mobility to crowd into adjacent neighbourhoods, thus continuing the cycle [of poverty]” (Baer, 1979).

This ‘delocalisation’ entailed even further segregation between rich and poor in the modern city. A study of the distribution of the most poor, the paupers (who relied upon the Poor Law for survival), was carried out in an attempt to understand the development of pauperism. The results showed that “if the statistical curve of pauperism for 1881 be compared with that of 1891 [the] curve is sliding across from right to left [… ] showing that poverty breeds poverty, and the result of that breeding is ever growing concentrations of the poor” (Dorling & Pritchard, 2009).

This was most obvious in the residential patterns of Victorian cities, as stated by Canadine (1977), “segregation, which is much more widespread, is by status and income. The poor, whatever their occupation, huddle together on the edge of the central business district, whilst those with time and money to spare flee to the periphery. And between these extremes are the increasingly segregated lower and middle classes, in a variety overlapping zonal, sectorial and clustered residential patterns. ”

With this in mind, Firth’s painting is all the more powerful, skilfully representing the division of the classes between the wealthy and the destitute. Indeed, the painting seems split vertically: the boy, on the left side, with a broom in his hand, is complemented by another seemingly poor boy like himself in the carriage to represent London’s poor. The lady, on the right side, is looking in the opposite direction and contributes, along with the man walking away behind her, to creating the imagery of London’s wealthy, upper-middle class.

The physical aversion to the scene by the gentleman and the lady could also translate a general social aversion of the rich towards the poor. At the time, it was believed by many that poverty was in the majority of cases self-inflicted; “the poor were expected to become ‘manly’; and ‘independent’ through the practice of thrift and self-help” (Baer, 1979). This controversy concerning a person’s capacity to disengage themselves from poverty was rife, not only among the rich, but throughout society.

Figure 2 shows an example of a young boy blackening a client’s shoe. The photo, from Street Life in London by John Thomson and Adolph Smith, is followed by a detailed explanation of the shoe-blacking community which relied upon the freedom of the streets for survival. Within these workers were two parallel opinions: some boys believed the work should be reserved to children and exclude able-bodied adults who could perform another line of work; whereas others believed that a man should be free to choose whichever profession he pleased.

However, regardless of the existence of these two beliefs, one prevailed, backed by the Metropolitan Police. The police force, created in 1829 in the context of London’s urban renewal and centralisation of the municipality, was henceforth able to influence the fate of street tradesmen. In the study of street life in London, policemen’s authority is clearly depicted explaining how certain policemen have been known to kick the boot-black’s box under a clients’ feet to prevent the blackener from working on the street without a licence. (Thompson & Smith, 1877).

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