Going underground

Historical Eye

MA work

'In London we find a society made up contrasts; a medley of modern ideas and antiquated prejudices, intellectual advancement and stolid customs, unequalled material progress and stubborn moral opposition'

Going underground


Late Victorian and early Edwardian London is steeped in mythology, hearsay, fact and fiction, while stories, sources and voices from the past all clamour to be heard. Even the raw statistics from this age have fascinating appeal. Take, for example, the growth in the city’s population figures: in 1881 London’s population stood at 4,767,000, by 1901 it was 6,581,000.1 During our chosen era of study, thousands upon thousands of immigrants arrived in the metropolis, particularly east European Jews. Each ethnic group jostled to succeed, adding their hopes, desires, tastes and expectations into the melting pot of urban life.


Many commentators from the time struggled to understand and categorise the swirling life of this city that seemed to be growing exponentially. Visiting London in 1885, Paul Vasili wrote: ‘In London we find a society made up of contrasts; a medley of modern ideas and antiquated prejudices, intellectual advancement and stolid customs, unequalled material progress and stubborn moral opposition.’2 The power of this city of contrasts is sometimes so strong that it becomes difficult for historians to stand apart and resist its mystique, particularly when exploring the metropolis at night and the inhabitants most closely connected with this urban realm: its prostitutes and its homeless.


A question of approach

How then have historians approached the study of the late Victorian and early Edwardian city at night given the superabundance of mainstream material,* including newspaper accounts, books, plays, adverts, letters and diaries? Those like Peter Ackroyd and Roy Porter have viewed the city’s history through a broad scope. While they write finely crafted narratives, only a few pages of their work are devoted to our area of study.

*Material and sources by prostitutes and vagrants themselves are far harder to come by.


Jerry White, Stephen Inwood and LCB Seaman, among many others, are more useful for our purposes. These historians have charted the city at night in some detail, delivering a fine mixture of sources to back up their arguments, without producing too broad an account or becoming bogged down in the minutia. However, White mixes and matches his sources from across the nineteenth century to construct his vision of the city. Inwood is more specific, successfully charting the metropolis through a number of broad themes, including transport, policing, poverty and entertainment during the late Victorian and Edwardian era.


Other historians have centred their attention on specific facets of London at night and its inhabitants, such as Gilda O’Neill or Kellow Chesney’s discussion of underworld crime and criminality. Chesney’s work also carries a useful chapter on prostitution and though it is mainly preoccupied with the early- to mid-19th century, it makes a great deal of valid points that remain pertinent to the discussion of late Victorian and early Edwardian streetwalkers.


Perhaps there is no one area that creates such a heated historical debate as the role of streetwalkers and vagrants and the perception of their lives. Often we visualise mean, grimy streets shrouded in fog and lit by the dim glow of a gas lamp. Indeed, it is almost mandatory in the telling and retelling of tales about late Victorian and early Edwardian London to conjure this potent imagery. And no study involving London by night from 1885-1905 and the prostitutes on its streets can avoid engaging with the Whitechapel murders*. For many, Jack the Ripper’s murders are the apotheosis of visualising late Victorian London at night, or even for the 1880s in general. As Inwood writes: ‘Nothing represents the London of the 1880s to modern readers more powerfully than the extraordinary Whitechapel murders.’3 A thriving cottage industry still relies upon the fascination with Jack the Ripper, as Gilnert notes: ‘Jack the Ripper has fuelled an inexhaustible store of books, films, articles, discussions and theories.’4

*The gruesome and terrifying murders of at least five prostitutes from 31 August until 8 November 1888 by the serial killer known to the world by the sobriquet Jack the Ripper. The victims were, in order of murder: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. They are popularly known as the ‘canonical five’.


Rather than rehashing hackneyed theories regarding the identity of the serial killer, Judith Walkowitz in her work, The City of Dreadful Delight, focuses on exploring the response to the killings and their effect upon gender relations. Her work offers a useful investigative template – one that attempts to break away from the powerful mythology of the Whitechapel murders that do so much to influence the modern view of nocturnal London during the period.


Other historians, like Paul Begg, Val Horsler, and the writers of the most comprehensive website on Jack the Ripper, www.casebook.org, have used the Whitechapel murders as a vehicle to help with their wider analysis of London’s East End at night. Rather than viewing the five commonly-accepted victims of the Ripper as mere sacrificial lambs to late Victorian masculinity out of control, these historians take pains to explore the personal history of the victims instead. They discuss the victims as individuals, not just sex workers or autopsied cadavers. Taking this approach, as we shall see, can offer a more balanced and nuanced understanding of late Victorian and early Edwardian streetwalkers.


The dominance of the Whitechapel murders on modern minds often relegates other important social groups that walked the nocturnal city to the historical footnotes. This is particularly true of London’s vagrants. While White touches upon begging, most of his sources and case studies are well before our chosen era. Inwood and other historians view vagrancy via the era's statisticians and progressives, particularly Charles Booth and Beatrice Potter and their efforts to discern the level of the vagrant population. However, little space is given over to exploring who these vagrants were and the particular problems they faced.


To some extent this is due to the paucity of primary sources available. Even those observers sympathetic to vagrants such as Jack London*, Hope Constaple and Walter Besant†, viewed them as a solid mass rather than as individuals. This makes the task of seeking to understand and explore the lives of vagrants during this era a far harder one.

*An American author and an influential socialist, who believed capitalism was one of the prime causes London’s urban problems.

†Who helped found the People’s Palace in Whitechapel, a large charitable institution to entertain and educate poorer people.


Kept in the dark

Before outlining the direction this dissertation will take, it is also important to note some of the realities that dominated the perception of London at night during the period itself. First and foremost London after dark was a ‘tale of two cities’. On one hand there was a well-documented ‘Bright Light City’, a place of amusement and entertainment, of theatre, music hall and night clubs. On the other there was its sister, the ‘Twilight City’.


A gloomy place, the Twilight City was never pitch black: the lights from smaller shops, the glimmer of lamps on passing vehicles and glow from household windows meant the urban landscape was always lit to some degree*. Even in the miasma of a thick fog, objects were discernable in London's nocturnal streetscape. The ‘pea-souper’ fog is such a powerful image that it is repeated time and again in films, books and illustrations. Yet the greatest threat from London's fog were not phantom criminals hidden by its embrace, but rather the very real industrial toxins carried within it. Thousands died each year from the fog's poisonous effect to the lungs 5, primarily because the miasma was a twinning of factory smog and the coal dust that spewed forth from London's chimneys. Such was its potency that the London fog easily created a ‘day-darkness’, often making the Twilight City a 24-hour feature of urban life.6 Today, the fog's distant decendants are alive and well in many of China's megacities, still taking a toll in lives both damaged and lost.

*The bulk of London’s public lighting was primarily gas though electricity was increasingly used. Considerably less powerful that than today’s lighting, it should be noted that gas technology improved greatly during the era with the introduction of the Welsbach mantle in 1895.7


A permanent semi-light also existed in many of the decreasing slum enclaves of London.* Here ancient and ramshackle buildings could create streets bathed in shadow, a factor that strongly influenced many late Victorian and early Edwardian commentaries on the Twilight City and the people who populated it. In 1899, H Barton Baker recorded the final days of one of these slums near Clerkenwell. Baker found himself in a cul-de-sac ‘so narrow that from the windows of one side you might easily press your hands upon the black wall opposite, and so dark that, summer and winter, a perpetual twilight reigns here’.8

*White notes that 25 major slum clearances occurred from 1876 to 1900.9


It is also noteworthy that in the early hours of the morning the Twilight City held illimitable dominion over all, to steal a phrase, and this included many of London's famed Bright Light spots. In 1894, Hope Constaple wrote: ‘I remember once passing through London in the very early hours of the morning – in fact as I turned down Regent Street a church clock boomed forth the hour of three – and the thought occurred to me that London life at this time reaches a neuter period – when the commercial and industrial worlds of the great city obtain their twilight.’10 It was during these hours that the city seemed to him to be ‘a huge exhausted monster taking a few hours rest after frantic toils and prolonged struggles.’11 The only enclave of Bright Light City in these dead hours was the humble coffee shop, ‘the little oasis in the darkness of a London night.’12


The Twilight City’s heart was undoubtedly in the East End, whose citizens were overwhelmingly working class. The area certainly contained notorious black spots and many of the surviving slums. However, many commentators from the era with experience of nocturnal London went to great lengths to assure their readers that not all was what it at first seemed. For example, Arthur G Morrison in an article in the Palace Journal, 24 April 1889, assured his readers that they would be ‘surprised’ and many of their preconceptions overturned were they to walk through the heartland of the Twilight City.13 Countess Cowper, who did much charity work in the East End, wrote: ‘There is, I believe, a common notion that the whole of the East End teems with vice and immorality of all kinds, but that is certainly not the case in all districts; and from all I have seen of the people of that part of London I should say there was far less drunkenness and immorality there, in proportion to the numbers, than there is in the different county parishes I have to do with.’14


Striking a balance

Bearing the above very much in mind, this dissertation shall begin by focusing on the London vagrant and how they existed by ‘hook or by crook’ in an urban landscape that afforded little by way of support and almost nothing by way of compassion. We will seek to find out who these people were and what kind of reaction they engendered in mainstream society. We shall see how, when out of sight and out of mind, they became nomads of the Twilight City’s, constantly moved on by the police.


Their night of rambling over, a large number would attempt to catch up on their sleep in the public parks. It was here, during daylight hours, that mainstream London often came face to face with vagrants – and its reaction was to demand they return to the twilight realm. It was a relatively common call and one that did much to influence the way mendicants were reported and, in turn, how we even judge them today.


Down the years, many have found the views expressed by a large section of the mainstream on vagrancy as unsavoury. For instance, the London County Council in its correspondence to the Metropolitan Police frequently labelled vagrants as ‘verminous persons’.15 But to construct a model of vagrancy solely based upon the terminology of observers would be a mistake. Many may have used a harsh vocabulary to describe vagrants but, at the same time, they would also show sympathy. Indeed, many who felt compelled to write letters of complaint to the police, borough councils, or newspapers were often those most attuned to the problems the indigent faced.


Our next ‘stop’ in the Twilight City will be an exploration female street walkers and their lives in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. The dissertation will seek to discover why certain women became streetwalkers. We will analyse many of the core concepts developed by Walkowitz and other historians. Is her influential model on prostitution supported or undermined by the evidence that we will collate?


We will then conduct a small case study, analysing police reports on the problems of prostitution in the Euston area, particularly the investigation into streetwalkers using Endersleigh Gardens in 1892. The work will then move on to note how streetwalkers who frequented London’s parks were often met with the same opprobrium that the mainstream reserved for vagrants. Having weighed the evidence, both primary and secondary, we will then explore the lives, as succinctly as possible, of three Whitechapel murder victims. What do these women and the specific difficulties they faced tell us about streetwalkers and the Twilight City? Again, do their histories concur or confound Walkowitz’s arguments?


In all aspects of analysing the vagrancy and streetwalking at night from 1885-1905 we must approach the sources with regard to the key historiography and the arguments and opinions made therein. Overall, we shall conclude that our perception of vagrants and prostitutes in the Twilight City, while certainly not unbalanced, is still very much incomplete and that the available sources – including those that have been trawled over many times – still have the capacity to reveal new and fascinating revelations.


The centre and the edge (click here to continue)


Creed of the Assassins


Cathedrals of consumption


William Morris and the Thames


New York Saloons 1845-1895


TheTwilight City


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