Excerpt from an article in "The Builder", vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31st October 1863).
Notwithstanding all that has been said on the subject elsewhere as well as in our own pages, the horrible condition in which a vast population are living is not yet understood and realized by the public. Nothing short of a personal examination, indeed, under proper guidance, can convey a complete idea of it. We must endeavour, however, by bringing the pencil to the aid of the pen, to make the facts a little clearer, and to urge on the authorities the absolute necessity for immediate steps with a view to bringing about a better state of things. Some of these steps, moreover, are quite practicable and not difficult...
We have recently again carefully examined a considerable part of the district [of Bethnal Green], including Grey Eagle-street, and the courts at the back of it, Phoenix-street, Nichol-street and its courts, Old Nichol-street, Half Nichol-street, and others. With few exceptions, each room contains a separate family; some consisting of mother, father, and eight children. The first two adjoining houses that we looked into, of six rooms each, contained forty-eight persons. To supply these with water, a stream runs for ten or twelve minutes each day, except Sunday, from a small tap at the back of one of the houses. The struggle for it is sometimes great: the means of storage are very small. The result is, as in other places mentioned by us again and again, that on Sunday there is seldom a drop of water to be found, and this of itself leads to a whole train of evils. The houses are, of course, ill-ventilated. The front room in the basement, wholly below the ground, dark and damp, is occupied, at a cost of 2s. a week for rent. We tried our old test on the first two women seen standing at the doors. "How many children have you?" "Four," was the reply of the first of them. "Have you lost any?" "Five, and there is one inside given over by the doctor." The second had two living and had lost three. Many of the houses are in a dangerous state structurally, and some have been condemned under the Building Act. Here is the description the inspector of nuisances gave of these when he went to the magistrate at Worship-street on the subject. He said each room contained a man and his wife and six or seven children. The whole were filthy and dilapidated; the party-wall between Nos.20 and 21 bulged at the basement to the extent of at least 2 feet, and the whole brickwork throughout was so much fractured that it might fall at any moment. In the basement of No.20 a great quantity of the dust and house refuse had not been removed for fourteen years, and formed a mound, through which a pathway had been made, by constant treading, which led from and to the entrances at the back and front. The water for drinking perposes was derived from a small tub without a lid in the midst of this heap, but a very scanty supply was furnished, it not being on much more than twenty minutes at a time. There was no efficient drainage to take off the waste water, so that the basements were saturated by it, and pools of stagnant water collected in the yards, which were unpaved, and contained a quantity of putrid vegetables, that had not been removed for a long time!
In George's-street three children have died in one house, and the rest of the family have been made ill, through the badness of the drainage and the want of pure air.
The occupation of the underground rooms here, as well as elsewhere, is illegal, and may at once be prevented. Under the Local Management Act, as our readers may remember, an underground room may not be occupied separately as a dwelling unless certain conditions are complied with, one of which is that there shall be a window of specified size, with an area before it open down to 6 inches below the floor of the room. The terms of the Act, however, have led to the belief that the duty of discovering the occupancy of such rooms rests with the district surveyor appointed under the Building Act, whose duties are entirely structural, who is quite unfit to serve as sanitary policeman, and moreover has not power under the Act to prove his case if he were to try. For the most part, therefore the Act is nugatory, - we had nearly written, with Hood, Newgatory, - excepting where, as in Islington and some other parishes, the inspector of nuisances or other qualified person obtains the proof of occupancy, calls on the district surveyor for a report as to the structural deficiency only, and carries the case before a magistrate in accordance with the Act.
This should at once be done in Bethnal-green, and scores of murderous dens would be shut up. It is no answer to say the inhabitants prefer to live, or (more truly) to die, in such rooms rather than meet the difficulty of finding a better room elsewhere. they must not be allowed to do so. Suicide is not permitted; still less suicide that leads to the death of others not desiring to die, and to the pauperising of a still larger number, who must be maintained by the more sensible and provident.
One of the worst examples that we saw of these underground rooms we must endeavour to illustrate. It is in Nichol-street, No.59, and may be described as entirely below the surface. the window of the apartment is a little over 3 feet in width, and about the same in height; the area is even with the breadth and depth of the window. It extends from the wall about 2 feet, and was closed with an iron grating; but this having become broken, the entire top of the area has been covered with wood, so that the only means of light and ventilation is a chink 3 feet wide by 4 and a half inches in height. Passing through the passage to the back, the dilapidated condition of the premises, as may be seen in the sketch, is startling. The plaster has fallen from the walls and the ceilings, the narrow staircase is rotten and shaky, the general colour is of a dingy smoky black, with peeps of indifferent brickwork and broken laths. At the back there is a large open space, in a most filthy condition; damp refuse of all kinds is piled up against the wall; there is no supply of water; the people have "to hunt for it;" nor is there any distinct closet accommodation for this home. When looking at the wet and poisonous mound, at the ill-built wall through which the damp and unwholesome matter must weep, and seeing that in all directions similar neglect of proper scavenging is evident, we cannot but insist that it is disgraceful to the parish. But as regards the cellar, in all our experince of London destitution and awful conditions, we have seen nothing so harrowing as what there met the view. Through the narrow space of the window that is left open ther came a glimmering light, which fell upon two figures, on a broken truckle, seemingly naked, with the exception of some black rags which passed across the middle of their bodies; but the greter part of the room, small as it is, was in total darkness. Mr. Price that there were more figures visible; and on asking if any were there, a female voice replied, "Yes; here are two of us. Mother is out;" and gradually, as the eye became accustomed to the gloom two other figures were to be seen lying in a corner upon rags. This was between twelve and one o'clock in the day. we were not disposed to look further into their mystery; but it was evident that one of the unfortunates was resting close to the damp and poisonous wall. Neither words nor drawing can convey a complete idea of this den and its dense and polluted atmosphere. Instead of this place being filled with the pure life-giving air which is needful for human existence, it seemed occupied by something tangible which might be moved and weighed. The height of the room, all of which is below the surface, is not quite 6 feet. The window would not open; the ceiling was ready to fall; and the walls, so far as the light showed, were damp and mildewed. The inmates here were a widow and her four children: one a girl twenty years of age, another girl eighteen, a boy of fourteen, and a boy of twelve. What, we ask, is to become of those unhappy creatures, reared in the dark and the dirt, and of the multitude who in this metropolis are "dragged up" under similar circumstances?
For four such rooms as we have attempted to describe, there are paid on the whole 12s. a week; that is, 31l. 4s. per year. Another similar cellar, not quite so dark or so damp, we found occupied by a man and his wife and six children, aged respectively fourteen, eleven, nine, six, and four years, and one ten months. We could draw a frightful picture of what met our sight in an upper room of a neighbouring house, but it would not further our present object, which is practical and precise, - to call for a sufficient water supply; the periodical removal, at short intervals, of all refuse; and the enforcement of the law in respect of the occupancy of underground dwellings.
We returned from the inspection saddened and ill. We have written of it coolly, but it was a sight to move indignation.
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.