The Blackest Streets, By Sarah Wise

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The Independent Culture

The clarity and exactitude of Wise's reports from the dark underbelly of Victorian life bear comparison to the revelatory photographs of that era.

As in her wonderful book The Italian Boy, she explores a milieu that was hungry, dirty, threadbare and exploited. This time, she has focussed on the Old Nichol, an inconceivably seedy corner of Bethnal Green, where 6,000 inhabitants were crammed into 30 streets of crumbling houses.

This adjective was literally true. One of the speculators who built the housing stock was a soap-maker who substituted lime for more expensive mortar.

Though disease and violence were rife, Wise insists that the area's reputation for evil was "ill-deserved". The real evil of the Nichol was the massive fortunes made by aristocratic and ecclesiastical landlords.