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New Left Review I/76, November-December 1972

Victor Kiernan

Victorian London—unending purgatory

‘Rome and her rats are at the point of battle . . .’ There were moments when late 19th-century London bore a close resemblance to the Rome of Coriolanus, torn by class conflict and watched by waiting enemies; and Victorians were brought up on Livy and Plutarch. As the great empire-builders of modern times they could hardly help remembering how while the Roman empire expanded it decayed at the heart, and the people of Rome turned into an unruly mob. Rome had no regular troops close at hand, London not very many, and in any case it would compromise the dignity of the imperial capital if the army had to be called in there. More to the point by the 1880s, the National Congress was coming into existence in India, with a native press quick to seize on any symptoms of weakness in the imperial masters. Early in 1886 London’s rats emerged in force from their East End sewers. A meeting of unemployed led on to rioting and looting, and there was panic for several days. ‘London was visited by something akin to the grande peur. [1] Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London. A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society (Clarendon Press, 1971, £4.50), p. 292. All following page-references in brackets are to this work. About the economic and social background of all this, the accumulation of half-employed, half-starved casual labour in the East End, Gareth Stedman Jones has written a remarkable book, a combination of sympathetic insight with exact investigation. [2] Op. cit. He has sifted a massive collection of printed volumes, official and unofficial, and his sources include unpublished material, especially from the records of the Charity Organisation Society and district relief bodies. Much of this work of interpreting the imperfect statistics available is technical, and only experts in such matters will be competent to assess it. The more general bearings of the subject lie within the reach of all of us. It is a book that opens up vistas in the history of London a century ago, and through this of human history, like the broad roads driven by Victorian planners through obscure slums, and is highly readable in spite of an intricate factual framework. It is enlivened by innumerable fragments of contemporary comment of every kind, and a set of illustrations helps to call a lost generation back to life from its pauper grave. There is a haunting contrast between two faces close together in a photograph of Providence Place and its denizens, a small girl’s still young enough for a naïve self-conscious smile and a middle-aged woman’s all grey stolid resignation. This is a work that ought to be read by every Londoner, by everyone with an interest in the problems of industrialism, or English social history, or the sour story of woman. In fact it is hard to think of anyone who ought not to read it.

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Victor Kiernan, ‘Victorian London--Unending Purgatory’, NLR I/76: £3

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