Devolved City

Devolved City

Below follows a sort of ‘lost chapter’ written while researching my MA and jettisoned due to time and word-count constraints. I had become intrigued by late-Victorian and early-Edwardian binaries relating to poverty/degeneration and malnutrition/mutation, and how these influenced wider views on the Twilight City. As part of this, I researched details about London's 'freak' and novelty shows, identifying them as transitional zones between the Bright Light City and the Twilight City. An important case study within this, and discussed in some detail below, was the life and death of Joseph Merrick, the self-proclaimed ‘Elephant Man’. Time and again, I was struck by how his story had been co-opted into the broader conceptualisation of the Twilight City and how this influenced the historiography and popular imagination of London at night 1885-1905.

I had also identified several further resources for further examination, but placed most of these on the backburner along with the chapter itself. For example, there was no opportunity to explore ‘phossy jaw’ that afflicted match girls and how this was viewed and debated. Phossy jaw was term given to the wasting away of the mouth muscles and jaw bones because of the match phosphorous used, with serious brain damage and  early death a common result in the most advanced cases. I also wanted to delve into the themes raised by H G Wells’ The Time Machine to a much greater extent as this science-fiction novel houses several rich veins of late-Victorian fears surrounding degeneration and devolution, albeit projected far into an imaginary future.

Much of what is presented is speculative as the work was still in the ‘sketchpad’ stage: i.e. developing concepts and ideas that needed the support of primary and secondary sources – or removal if no solid material on which to base an argument could be found. Quite frankly, my opening gambit needs a major overhaul, while the middle part jumps from a more generalist discussion on late-Victorian concerns about degeneration to freak shows far too abruptly. In addition, there is a lack of conclusion because the work was not even 25% complete. So why present this? Because I think there are the kernels of good ideas here that others might find of interest.


Commentators exploring London’s Twilight City of the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian period offer a myriad of differing opinions when discussing the concerns voiced about poverty, decay and corruption of the body. Oftentimes, London was viewed as the end-product of capitalism, a vampiric city that leeched its workers' vitality and forced many to devolve into troglodyte half-persons. Jack London vividly descibed this kind of world in his work The People of the Abyss. ‘The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature and of wretched and beer-sodden appearance… Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and in the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling.’ These were the ‘feeble, besotted and imbecile.’ 

Jack London’s account of his night walk along Commercial Street from Whitechapel to Spitalfields comprises one of his most powerful passages. ‘I saw a nightmare,’ he wrote, ‘a fearful slime that quickened the pavement with life, a mess of unmentionable obscenity that put into eclipse the “nightly horror” of Piccadilly and the Strand. It was a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts.’ But not all in the Twilight City were weak, according to Jack London. Indeed, there were bestial men who prowled the streets looking for quarry – either the the unwary or those who had simply gone astray. When they attack, London wrote, ‘they spring upon their human prey [and] are known even to bend the victim backward and double its body till the back is broken.’

These monsters of the Twilight City fed off their brethren, mutilating and eviscerating them time and again, as though the city was inhabited by thousands of Jack the Rippers. ‘[They] are a new species, a breed of city savages… the slum is their jungle, and they live and prey in the jungle,’ London added. Continuing his taxonomy of degeneration and brutalisation, he then describes simian half-men, walking like zombies and dressed in ‘fantastic rags… their faces in a perpetual writhe of pain, grinning idiotically, shambling like apes, dying with every step they took.’

It was provocative, hyperbolic prose and tapped into well-worn tropes about the Twilight City even for the time. Few other authors would have pressed the point so far. But Jack London was also writing for an American audience and, with the USA urbanising at rates faster than those recorded in Britain in the mid-19th Century, there was a fear what he described would be replicated in the Twilight districts of New York, Chicago, Detroit or a host of other burgeoning US cities.

Other authors mulled the effects of presumed degeneration, particularly through the comparatively-new utopian or science-fiction novels. For example, William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890) used degeneration as a foil for his vision of workers living healthy lives in a future London that had developed into in a kind of neo-medieval/socialist golden age. By comparison, the poor of the late-Victorian era were described as ‘bent… thin and spindly’. H G Wells’ science fiction The Time Machine (1895) inferred the poor had devolved over thousands of years to become, in the words of Jerome Hamilton Buckley, the ‘grim moronic Morlocks of the underground’. But the wealthy and idle have not been immune either, becoming the pleasure-loving and docile Eloi, their world made possible by the toiling Morlocks. However, the Morlocks devour the Eloi for their food, completing a symbiotic/parasitical relationship that would have both resonated with and unsettled Wells’ audience.

But if Jack London was right, then the Twilight City's poor did not need thousands of years to devolve. This form of opinion carried weight in some important scientific circles. For example, the polymath Francis Galton believed the poor owed their position to a form of societal evolution. The degeneration of their collective health was due to city conditions, which then 'unlocked' and accelerated a latent process that always lurked within those at the bottom of society. Seen through this prism, the poor were 'naturally' dirty and responsible for any filth that surrounded them, while their large families – suggestive of uncontrolled sexual appetites – also meant they were to blame for the limited resources of their families. Stern intervention and regulations were needed to halt and reverse this state of affairs because the poor in society lacked the agency required to solve their problems.

Another pseudo-scientific example was recorded in 1903 by Walter Besant, who recalled a conversation with Professor Thomas Huxley, aka ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’.* Huxley apparently told him, saying: ‘I have seen the Polynesian savage in his primitive condition… with all his savagery, he was not half so savage, so unclean, so irreclaimable, as the tenant of a tenement in an East End Slum.’ Besant used this quote to illustate how provocative and uninformed many of the arguments had become. Nonetheless, it was somewhat ironic that both the progressive/reformist and Social Darwinist camps were each groping towards greater state intervention to improve conditions, albeit for differing reasons and with very different ideas on how best to achieve the desired results.

*So called for his staunch advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution. H G Wells had been one of his biology students.

Removal men

William Booth of the Salvation Army was a high-profile reformer, although he was also driven by an evangelical desire to ‘save’ spiritually as well. He believed degeneration could be counteracted by overhauling living conditions and improving working practices. The lack of affordable foodstuffs reaching the poor was also highlighted, particularly when it came to getting fresh milk to babies and children. However, demands for temperance were introduced as well. It was argued better conditions would exist if the poor abstained from alcohol, helping to increase a family’s disposable income and further boost its well-being. This would create a virtuous cycle that would see thousands transformed and lifted out of poverty, or so the theory went.

Those that could not or would not improve themselves should be removed from the dangers and temptations of London, with Booth proposing the development of rural co-operatives that would teach farming or other forms of employment. It would also equip many for their next task, which was to be a wave of colonial settlers. It was hoped the effects of ill health and degeneration could be reversed or, at the very least, reduced by these methods. In addition, removal of the ‘residuum’, the so-called excess population, would help solve city overcrowding and improve living conditions at the same time. It would also assist the remaining workers command higher wages as the casual labour pool shrank.

Another noted evangelical philanthropist of the age, Thomas Barnardo, had more specific ambitions in mind. He wanted to help orphans and, occasionaly, families by enabling them to live better lives in Britain and the colonies.* He argued pauper children could be turned into productive members of the working classes, possibly even the middle class, through hard work and Christian salvation. But Barnardo, Booth and others all took agency out of people's hands, which partially explains the fierce criticism they faced.+ In addition, some of the children sent abroad by Barnardo were sent to inappropriate and sometimes exploitative foster families who treated them little better than indentured servants.

*Many were not actually orphans, only designated as such by Barnardo. He would face charges of kidnapping on several occasions, although his high profile and charisma allowed him to avoid judicial wrath.

+Salvation Army personnel were often assaulted, verbally and sometimes physically. A counter group that called itself the ‘Skeleton Army’ also opposed Salvation Army rallies and activities. However, it had strong ties to publicans and brewers who were fearful of the temperance movement ruining their trade.

But for all the debates about degeneration, poverty and health, the problem of disease and malnutrition refused to fade, with many so-called deserving families – including many in lower-middle classes – continued to be haunted by medical issues that confounded the moral arguments. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of scientific knowledge. For example, an understanding of pathology, contagion, immunity and sanitation was still in its infancy, while diseases almost consigned to history today – polio, tuberculosis or diphtheria – remained horrific killers that could strike rich and poor alike. Still, it was known that healthy diets were vital for better immunity and healthier bodies, and the question of how a city's poor and lower-middle classes could properly feed themselves appeared unanswerable in this era. 

This was worrying from the British capitalist/competitive perspective as the USA and Germany started to erode Britain’s supremacy in the global market. For example, Winston Churchill’s comments after reading Seebohm Rowntree’s work Poverty: a study in town life (1900)* explicitly connected poverty with competitiveness. Writing to a friend in 1901, he noted Seebohm had computed the American worker was more competitive because he was stronger, better fed and physically taller than his British counterpart. ‘This is surely a fact which our unbridled Imperialists, who have no thought but to pile up armaments, taxation and territory, should not lose sight of,’ Churchill wrote, adding: ‘For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.’

*An assessment of poverty in the town of York.

However, the imperialists were concerned as well; if the urban population was sickly, how could Britain fight against a nation with vast conscript armies like Germany's? The issue was brought into stark relief during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) when thousands of willing volunteers from London and other British cities were turned away on the grounds of poor health. This rang alarm bells among those who had often rejected state intervention on the grounds of progressive or reformist concerns. Government assistance was suddenly seen by them through the prism of national defence, with a focus on feeding and educating all children. The scouting movement developed under the auspices of Robert Baden-Powell at the end of our era was partly born out of similar fears.


Roll up! Roll up!

Those suffering from extreme forms of disability or genetic disadvantage could earn a comparatively good living in the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian freak or novelty show. Often condemned as a place of extortion and crude exploitation, the reality was often very different. For a start, the shows were frequently the only places where an independent living was possible away from the workhouse or the intrusive gaze of the medical community. It was also a place where, behind the scenes, normative behaviour and rules of social engagement were determined by the performers, management and stage hands. 

Shows usually kept to the Twilight City’s periphery, profiting from displaying 'oddities', disfigurement or what were considered unusual acts of behaviour to the general population, predominately the working class. In addition, this was done in a purposefully garish, salacious or unsettling manner. However, pushing the boundaries of taste too far would invite the intervention of local authorities who considered themselves guardians of mainstream taste and decency. For example, the magistrate Montague Williams was disgusted by a waxwork display of early Ripper murders in 1888* as he was investigating a freak and novelty show in Whitechapel. 

*The show was held while the serial killer continued stalking the streets.

Williams had the waxworks closed. Interestingly, the site appears to be the same premises where Joseph Merrick had earlier established himself in the East End as the 'Elephant Man' attraction. Merrick’s manager, Tom Norman, recalled the location was well known for its waxwork displays and was owned and ran by a man named Cotton. The Whitechapel murders waxworks also seem to have been run under his auspices, while Williams was not the only one who felt disgusted by it. The Pall Mall Gazette informed its readership: ‘There is at present almost opposite the London Hospital a ghastly display of the unfortunate women murdered.’

The late-Victorian and early-Edwardian freak and novelty shows were most popular in the evening times, particularly when the week’s work was drawing to a close and people had received their wages. Williams declared: ‘The principal time for the performances, it appeared, was from eight in the evening until half-past eleven though, in the case of some fat women and performing Zulus, the entertainment was open during the day as well.’ The Zulus were simply a group sailors in blackface, talking made-up gibberish. The audience would have known it was cheap simulacra, yet it still appealed to their notions of the unusual and foreign.

Inversion of gender norms was also popular entertainment and Williams witnessed the novelty act of ‘Miss Juanita’ who lifted weights and boxes, and he felt disturbed at this display of female muscularity. Female boxing was another means of transgressing gender boundaries for entertainment, as were the more racy acts. For example, one investigating policeman informed Williams he had attended an earlier show and seen ‘a women “mit nodings on” swimming in a tank.’ Williams saw nothing of this sort during his visit, describing a mundane boxing match between ‘Daniel the Dutchman’ and the ‘Welshman’. The magistrate then listed some other attractions. ‘Besides fat women, dwarfs, “living Skeletons” and giants,’ he wrote, there were 'a number of monstrosities, including “a man with no neck”, and a creature that purported to be a five-legged pig. One attraction, which was alleged to have been brought to this country by Buffalo Bill, was described as “half gorilla and half human being”, and was certainly a most disgusting-looking object.’

The underworld also circled these ersatz Bright Light spaces, attracting pickpockets and other small-scale criminals. ‘I was informed by the police that the pavement outside these places was a favourite spot with the Whitechapel pickpockets,’ Williams noted. He believed the thieves were in cahoots with the proprietors of the shops, jointly fencing stolen goods, and the magistrate had the show closed and cross-examined some of the performers in court. He fined them 40 shillings each* and, because they were unable to pay, they left the court as prisoners. Other shows were taken to court and faced similar fines and punishments. ‘This wholesale correction,’ wrote Williams, ‘had the desired effect and the proprietors of other establishments of a similar character, [who] finding the law too strong for them, shut up shop and decamped.’ 

*A large fine indeed, equating to several weeks’ worth of work for most of them.

But who were the proprietors Williams was combatting? Tom Norman offers a useful template as some of his opinions were recorded for posterity. Mildly successful, he employed acts that were varied and strange to attract customers, meeting and trying to surpass their expectations. At one time, he displayed an act of fleas in harnesses, some fat ladies, giant babies, tall men and short men. The short men – likely to be dwarves – were interesting in that Norman had them dress up as a ‘family’. However, the ‘mother’ was a notorious drunkard who refused to stop smoking and drinking in front of visitors. He eventually left the show, fed up with dressing  as a woman.

‘Elephant Man’

Perhaps the most melancholic and emblematic vision of disfigurement in the Twilight City was ‘unveiled’ just before the start of our era in November 1884, when Joseph Merrick, better known to the public as the ‘Elephant Man’, came to the attention of the medical world. It is not within the remit of this work to analyse the complex moral maze of reactions to Merrick’s deformity and its subsequent place in medical history. However, we shall consider the linking of his body to the popular concepts about London at night from 1885-1905 and, sometimes, to the horror of the Whitechapel murders.

For example, even careful historians like Peter Graham and Fritz Oehlschlaegar in their work Articulating the Elephant Man placed Merrick’s life within the context of the Ripper. They wrote: ‘In the dark streets of Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper was pursuing his murderous course and in the safe haven of the London Hospital, Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man and perhaps the most celebrated sufferer of the of the deforming disorder that has come to be known as the Proteus syndrome, was nearing the end of his life.’ The authors add: ‘The Elephant Man’s existence was more thoroughly documented than Jack the Ripper’s, but ultimately just as mysterious – his presence has proven equally fascinating to popular, creative, and scholarly minds alike.’

That Merrick was in the London Hospital in 1888 did not stop the movie From Hell briefly linking Merrick and the Ripper. In a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ moment, an extra in clothes similar to those Merrick wore is seen shambling along the street. This would have been a remarkable feat in real life as Sir Frederick Treves, famed for ‘discovering’ Merrick, noted he found walking difficult in his final years. Treves wrote: ‘His greatest adventure was on one moonless evening when he walked alone as far as the hospital garden and back again.’ A more serious and dedicated effort in exploring Merrick’s life was the 1979 film The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch. While atmospheric, it is flawed throughout because of the heavy reliance on Treves’ account, an autobiographical bid by the doctor to portray his actions in the best possible light.

The film is also rife with late-twentieth century condemnation of the era, with Merrick portrayed as a perpetual victim saved from the squalor only through Treves’ care, a character portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as akin to a kindly general practitioner. Yet Merrick, if we can trust his one-time manager Tom Norman’s account, was far from happy with Treves at the start. The doctor paid him to be the centre of a lecture – putting the 'Elephant Man' back on stage, albeit for the eyes of medical professionals rather than the general public. Merrick was apparently horrified when commanded to undress, an indignity he had never suffered before. He supposedly told Norman afterwards that he ‘felt like an animal in a cattle market’.

Lynch’s depiction of Whitechapel at night is one of near-constant darkness that deftly plays on preconceptions about the Twilight City. Graham and Oehlschlaegar write: ‘In Lynch’s grainy black and white film, the foggy menace of 1880s Whitechapel and the grim realities of late nineteenth century hospitals become almost palatable.’ Treves comes across Merrick on a grim night, the inky blackness a threatening and claustrophobic force. In reality, the meeting took place on a cold but sunny November afternoon at the back of the shop where Merrick’s show was being held.

John Bland-Sutton, who had just started his fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1884, had tipped Treves off about the 'Elephant Man'. Bland-Sutton had a habit of walking to East London to the Mile End Road ‘especially on Saturday nights ‘to see dwarfs, giants, fat women and monstrosities at freak shows,' he wrote. 'There was a freak museum at a public house – the Bell and Mackerel near the London Hospital. It was on one of these visits in 1884 [that] I saw “on show” opposite the London Hospital the repulsive human being known as the Elephant Man. The poor fellow John [sic] Merrick – was deformed in body, face, head and limbs.’

Bland-Sutton’s conversation intrigued Treves, who became determined to visit the shop and its show. ‘In the Mile End Road, opposite to the London Hospital,’ he recalled. ‘The whole front of the shop, with the exception of the door, was hidden by hanging sheet on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was twopence.’ Treves account persists in calling Joseph Merrick ‘John’ and makes several other basic errors that historians Michael Howell and Peter Ford highlight. ‘There are obvious errors [with Treves’ account]: the London Hospital does not, for instance, stand in the Mile End Road as he states in the opening sentence.’

The show was no longer running when Treves arrived and the doctor had to pay 5 shillings for a private appointment, about a day’s wages for the average worker. He first saw Merrick warming himself next to a brick heated by a gas burner, the memory of which he used to highlight the austere conditions. But this forgets the thousands of others in London who would have considered any form of heating to be a luxury. In the Lynch movie, Treves enters the shop – depicted more like a hovel – to find Merrick slumped under rags as a drunken Tom Norman is depicted alternatively shouting at him and coming to an ‘understanding’ with doctor. Treves’ own account also has Norman bellowing at the Elephant Man, as though he were a beast.

Stung at Treves’ accusations, and what he believed were other inaccuracies, Norman wrote his own recollections. He painted himself in a much better light, of course, although the account nonetheless deserves attention given the paucity of other sources. Norman argued he had been loath team up with Merrick, whose disabilities he believed too advanced. In addition, he worried that any show would be deemed exploitative and offensive. But Merrick persisted, stressing he had a contract with Norman and that failure to put on a show would mean the manager was in breach of a legally-binding agreement. Later on, Norman discovered why Merrick was so keen to press on: he had spent a large amount of time in the workhouse of his hometown, Leicester, and feared being sent to a similar institute.

This issue of a contract was more important than many historians realise: to be held in contempt by the ‘artists’ was a sure-fire way of destroying a career in management. Norman claimed he made sure Merrick was as comfortable as the funds permitted, while the Whitechapel shop was kept clean by Norman’s 12-year-old assistant, Jimmy. There were two beds where Norman and Merrick slept, with Merrick’s bed surrounded by curtains to give him extra privacy. There was also the gas ring that was surrounded by bricks in order to conserve warmth.

Howell notes: ‘Tom Norman was adamant that at no time did he treat Joseph Merrick as a “wild animal” as Treves implied. He pointed out that is would have been neither in his nature nor his interests to do so.’ On the other hand, Treves immediately saw Merrick as an unusual case study for a glorified 'show-and-tell'. Such was his discomfort and outrage with the first viewing that Merrick refused to attend another medical display. According to Norman, Treves was exasperated and returned to the shop demanding Merrick’s reappearance. He met with refusal once more and stormed off. The authorities arrived the next day and closed the show, with Norman arguing this was probably linked to Treves’ anger at not getting his specimen for a second time.

Even if we give Norman’s account a large pinch of salt – for example, if Merrick was so upset with Treves, then why did he go back to the London Hospital? – the account clearly shows Merrick was not a passive victim. Indeed, Graham and Oehlschlaegar wrote that he was ‘the first mover in the process of creating the Elephant Man, an individual who bravely endured and, when he had to, successfully exploited his outrageously intractable bodily disorder.’

More problematic for our purposes is the failure of many historians to move away from the portrayal of Merrick as a product of the Twilight City. For example, Michael Harrison’s London by Gaslight: 1861-1911 lists, almost point by point, every populist notion surrounding Merrick as a fact. According to Harrison, Treves arrived at the shop ‘one night, as the icy fog curled around him.’ He reads the garish canvas adverts by ‘the dim light of a gas-lamp’ and, as if drawn by a grim supernatural force, he enters the shop. Harrison, who gives the then 31-year-old Treves a premature knighthood, continued: ‘Impelled by he knew not what impulse, Sir Frederick pulled back the stained canvas flaps, and walked into the darkness: a darkness relieved only by the faintest glimmer of light in the innermost recesses of the “hole in the wall” – a roofed space between two buildings.’ Treves sees the misshapen body of Merrick and then waits for ‘the return of the Elephant Man’s keeper – to buy the Elephant Man for five pounds, and take him back to the Mile End Infirmary.’*

*Actually the sum agreed between Treves, Merrick and Norman for the medical show and nothing at all to do with buying Merrick, while the Mile End Hospital is the wrong name for the London Hospital.

More egregiously, Harrison wrote the medical experts ‘did not even know to which sex they should assign the Elephant Man’. At best, Harrison’s account was confused. At worse, it peddled false preconceptions about the Twilight City and Merrick as fact. This last point neatly highlights a problem for even careful historians: the reliance on slender resources and the temptation to pad out the text or purposefully entwine a narrative that both condemns but also utilises late-Victorian and early-Edwardian language and arguments surrounding degeneration and mutation. In these accounts, Merrick becomes a totemic, misshapen figure of the Twilight City.

That being said, it would be wrong to assert Merrick had no connection whatsoever to the Twilight City as he participated in the world of freak and novelty sideshows. But if we believe Norman’s account, Joseph Merrick set his own parameters for earning a livelihood and exploited this facet of Twilight City for his own ends. Unfortunately, as his disease progressed, it started pushing him beyond the normative values of this carnival world, making it less likely he could remain within its safe confines. Meanwhile, the rest and peace Merrick secured towards the end with Treves was not afforded him in death; his bones were preserved for scientific study and continue to be assessed and debated. Merrick might have died in 1890, but the 'Elephant Man' show continues…