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The Blackest Streets, by Sarah Wise

Dirt, death and decency

Just north of Bethnal Green Road, a series of monumental brick and terracotta tenements cluster round a Victorian bandstand in Arnold Circus. The pioneering Boundary Street Estate, designed by LCC architects in an Arts & Crafts style, was erected on the rubble of the "Nichol", London's most notorious slum. Of the appalling poverty which previously existed there was little doubt, and it was graphically fictionalised in Arthur Morrison's 1896 bestseller, A Child of the Jago. A high proportion of families occupied single rooms – often single beds – and basements were shared with animals which were used or traded. The houses themselves were vermin-ridden, lacked sanitation, and the high mortality rate was a direct result of slum landlordism, or "rent farming" as it was known.

Yet while few denied the horrific conditions in which the costers, cabinet-makers, flower-sellers, seamstresses and their families lived, there was little agreement as to how to solve the long-term problem of working-class poverty and the familial violence it engendered. The scale and savagery of domestic violence detailed in this outstanding history is heart-rending.

A single medical officer was responsible for the locality's water supplies, drainage, factories, food safety, infectious diseases, refuse collections, vaccinations, dairies, bathhouses, mortuaries, cemeteries and public lavatories, and few were either inspected or regulated. Publicans dominated the local vestries and corruption flourished. Into this vacuum gathered all kinds of proselytising and reformist interests. These ranged from anarchists advocating "hand grenades, strychnine and lead" to the Crutch and Kindness League, from teetotal evangelicals running soup kitchens to High Anglican priests with a liking for incense, frocks, boxing and rough trade. One Tractarian realist argued for both "the Incarnation and drains".

Too often, both idealistic vicars and romantic socialists ended up espousing eugenics, as the cycle of misery appeared to reproduce itself from one generation to the next. Did the sty make the pig or the pig make the sty, they anguished? The author convincingly details every nuance of the debate about the complex inter-relationship between economy and morality, over-crowding and familial breakdown. However, one of her major sources – the testimony of petty criminal Arthur Harding as recounted to oral historian Raphael Samuel in the 1970s – is regrettably partial and incomplete according to former MP, Stan Newens, writing in the History Workshop Journal last year. In all other respects the scholarship appears impeccable.

Some East End commentators refuted this picture of unremitting savagery. Only one murder was actually recorded in the Nichol between 1885 and 1895, and many respectable clubs and societies flourished there. The appearance of a barrel organ would set the whole street dancing, usually in twos and in strict time. Some clergy and teachers found the children open-hearted and sharp-witted, though one evangelist managed to send 12,000 youngsters to the colonies in a ruthless purge which only ended at her death.

As with her previous book, The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise is superb on statistical detail, providing a price list of local staples in the East End: a fish and chip supper (2 pence), a seat in the music hall (3 pence), a home visit from the doctor (2 shillings and 6 pence), a child's funeral (30 shillings), a night with a prostitute (2 shillings), a stolen bottle of whisky (3 shillings), a handgun (5 shillings). Of such indices are material economies and cultures made. The author describes her work as "a voyeuristic book about voyeurism", but she does herself down. In every respect this is a note-perfect work of social history, thoroughly researched, charitable in its sympathies, and sadly still embodying lessons for today.

Ken Worpole's 'Dockers and Detectives' is published by Five Leaves

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