THE SHAMEFUL PAST OF LONDON TOWN
NOT A PRETTY PAST
LONDON, a City visited by millions annually from all quarters of the world. LONDON, a City regarded as one of the most iconic cities with a deep history and modern skyline living in harmony and supporting a wide and vibrant society within ever expanding boundaries. A city to be visited and enjoyed by those from outside and to be lauded by those who have their being there day in day out. A charming picture for sure.
However, reel back to 1840, just 100 years before I was born and we discover a very different scene in this metropolis stretching out on either side of the River Thames. Now forget those chocolate box scenes that romanticised the period and the city and look at how things were in this centre of humanity at that time.,
My schoolboy history taught me little of real subsatnce of England"s Capital, focussing on persons of worth, like Kings, Queens and machinations of the human condition leading to the pursuit of power and the like. Of course we learned of key events as well, like the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Fire, the Plague, etc. etc. but in all truth they were very distanced in time and little was portrayed to us as to how our great grandparents and their like had lived, if indeed, they were citizens of London Town.
In fact, most of my conceptions of Victorian London came from English studies not specific History. For most, the works of Charles Dickens , who like Shakespeare, "for gain not glory" painted the social observatory pictures in his novels. Even so, the stark pictures he painted soon became distorted and romanticised for easy public consumption. Consider the harsh reality of life painted in "A Christmas Carol" to the joyful celebration of the Festive period and the magic it can weave and you will get my drift
Earlier this year, I read a factual study of the building of one of London"s most defining sites, The Thames Embankment. I first set eyes on it in 1956 en route to France with my school. In those days out travel involved train to London then, after half a day there, the evening boat train to Newhaven, a ferry crossing to Dieppe, another train to Paris,a change to another to Rouen and finally a local diesel "chugger" to our destination Besancon. It was two full days travel. Today, a trip to a local airport, a short flight and another short coach trip and you would be there in no more than 6 hours or so, door to door. Mind you, our 2 day jaunt was racy by Victorian standards when coach and horses would have had a part to play, so we felt we were positively racing to do the journey in two days.This, of course, is something of a digression but it serves to show the way things have developed from the 1850"s to the 1950"s and with ever increasing acceleration to the 2010"s.
Returning now to the Thames Embankment, I learned that it came about, as does a lot of progressive things, through necessity, not for cosmetic decoration. It transpires that things in London had become intolerable from a point of view of hygiene, as residents had no real answer to disposal of unwanted substances. Only this weekend I learned for the first time that in the 1840"S, a clear up of animal excrement saw 24,00 tons of muck moved annually between Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street. Picture, if you will that happening today as Tourists from the USA, JAPAN, CHINA stroll, cameras at the ready through those bustling streets. In Smithfield Market, it is recorded the Police of the day were given thigh high boots to enable them to make progress through the animal waste piled high. All this plus the stench of slaughtered animals and general disorder on the streets made Victorian London a most unattractive place.
Things came to a head in 1858. London became known as the "GREAT STINK". The reason for this now obvious to most sensible folk, who found London"s River, the major cause of their woes The Thames meandered slowly through the City and at every point found itself used as a dumping ground for decaying waste. 1858 saw a very hot summer with 33 degree temperatures. The already putrid waters fermented and through out noxious vapours all over, even past the doors of Parliament itself.
Stirred into action, a project to clean up London was launched. In the event it fell to a German architect and engineer to come up with the key to progress. The idea, simple in concept, was to speed up the flow of the Thames by narrowing the width and sinking piles at the new boundaries which allowed for the new Embankment construction and the establishment of a full sewage system. The innovation took notice of the fact that the Thames has daily two high and two low tides, and that if narrowed, the faster flow as the tide went out, would take with it more of the waste accumulated at low tide time. It is testimony to the quality of the work done then, that London to a large extent, still relies on the system and sewers created to this very day. Clearly they now require renovation and modernisation to keep up with the ever increasing population but they solved the Victorian problem to a large extent and left a legacy we still count on today.
Even so, hygiene alone was not the sole reason for the wretchedness of London in these times. Cholera outbreaks and other fevers were rampant, killing off thousands each year. Even so, the population continued to rise, 1 million more between 1830 and 1850. The majority of these constituted the poor, living in squalor, in substandard accommodation and without food, safe water, transport and employment in many, many cases.
The human condition is nothing if not resilient however, and many of the observations of "street life" found in Dickens and other commentators, demonstate the sprit and optimism of the most downtrod who fashioned there own ways to find a way through the sad maze of life that they found themselves in. Such spirit was to be seen again by the resilience of Londoners, especially in the poorer East End , in the Second World War where they endured almost relentless bombing by the German Air Force for prologed periods.
All in all then ,Victorian London was a place I hazard few of us would today, wish to visit and certainly not be condemned to pass out the days of life within. The fascinating fact to me is that this was but 100 years prior to my own birth and yet, now seems almost as distant as the Middle Ages. It makes one wonder what those to be born in 2040 will make of me and others born in 1940.
PROGRESS STILL REQUIRED
Looking back at Victorian London, it is perhaps too easy to be patronising from our comfort zone enjoyed today. Progress is based on cxhange, but let us not forget that LL change is not necessarily progress. We have certainly come a long way in 150 years and the rate of demonstrable progress increase year on year. Yet there remains much to do, if those who come after us are not to view us in similar light to the way we, with hindsight can view Victorian London.
I was struck, as I always have been, when travelling through suburban London to the City by train, at the decay and squalar that is visible from the train window as one progresses towards the City. The Olympic Games held mainly in East London proved an inspirational catalyst to clear out the old and replace with new and striking edifices. NEW HOUSING, COMMERCIAL CENTRES, AND EVEN IN PLACES EFFORTS TO CLEAR UP THE MODERN SCOURGE OF GRAFFITTI, ONCE MORE HAVE PROVED THAT ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE GIVEN TIME AND MONEY.
The biggest problem I now contend, is not as beset the Victorians, problems which could be solved by ingenuity and engineering, but deeper, more difficult problems relating not to facilities, though much remains to be done still, but to the human condition itself. Nowadays it seems that everyone wants, demands even, every product and service which bombards them from TV and Internet advertising. People have seemingly abandoned the spirit of community which pulled so many through so many difficult times. Would the current crop of Eastenders show the spirit of their Victorian and World War Two forebears? I have my doubts ! The current culture seems to be based on "I" rather than we.
London,is a delightful place to visit and in which to spend money, assuming you have it and I urge all who can to visit. At the same time, would I want to live there. Again the answer comes down to money. For the well heeled, no problem, but for those on tighter budgets, I see, as ever was, better places in the UK in which to reside and bring up a family. Like all big cities London is like the onion with many layers. Equally it has layers that denote how it was through the ages and some of those give cause for shame not celebration. One suspects that whatever and however progress is made layers yet to be laid down will continue that mix. At the end of it all, a city has only a skeleton of history, tradition, and buildings. The real and ever beating heart of it all lies with it"s people. In this area I maintain there is much yet to be done, or maybe a return to the values that saw the poor through the trials of Victorian England could trigger a new and more caring, vibrant dawn. Pie in the Sky ? Perhaps, but we can always hope.