Friday, December 07, 2012

Technical topic -- The Regency East End

Someone asks --

In re the Regency East End ... Would you happen to have any book recommendations?

Indeed I do:

Berm, Chaim, London's East End, (mostly late Victorian Information.)

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook, Black London: Life before Emancipation.

Holmes, Thomas, London's Underworld.  here. 

Low, Donald, The Regency Underworld.

Victorian East London Dore
Mayhew, Henry, Mayhew's Characters.   (See also Quennell, Peter ed, London's Underworld.  This is a selection from Mayhew and available used and cheap.  Mayhew is written mid-century but info is earlier.  A lot of Mayhew's work is on the net. For instance --  here. )

Rose, Millicent, The East End of London. (I don't have this one myself, so I can't vouch for it, but I keep meaning to look it up in a library.)

Two Citizens, How to Live in London.  here.

Have a look at the maps here and here.

Here's a Victorian account:

We dismiss our cab: it would be useless in the strange, dark byeways, to which we are bound: natives of which will look upon us as the Japanese looked upon us the first European travellers in the streets of Jeddo. The missionary, the parish doctor, the rent collector (who must be a bold man indeed), the policeman, the detective, and the humble undertaker, are the human beings from without who enter this weird and horrible Bluegate Fields. 

We arrived at Whitechapel Police Station, to pick up the superintendent of savage London. He had some poor specimens - maundering drunk - in his cells already - and it was hardly nine o'clock. 

We plunge into a maze of courts and narrow streets of low houses - nearly all the doors of which are open, showing kitchen fires blazing far in the interior, and strange figures moving about. 

At dark corners, lurking men keep close to the wall; and the police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected. "He would be stripped to his shirt" was the candid answer - made while we threaded an extraordinary tangle of dark alleys where two men could just walk abreast, under the flickering lamps jutting from the ebon walls, to mark the corners.       Jerrold Blanchard, London: A Pilgrimage 1872

I feel like I gotta get up on one of my hobbyhorses here.

London workmen Victorian
The most important thing about the rookeries of London in 1802 -- and the Roman tenements in 79 AD and the slums of SE Washington DC in 1960 -- is that the denizens of the place were 'at home'.  They weren't dwelling in some landscape of horror. 

And they were ordinary folk.  The men and women in these stacked-up, decrepit buildings and dirty streets were ordinary, well-meaning, hard-working people, not monsters.  The violent gangs hanging out on street corners were a dangerous minority who preyed on and were hated by everyone else.  

Clothes sellers, late C19

When the heroine makes a wrong turn and ends up in a bad neighborhood, she hasn't fallen into a pit of vipers.  Those people passing her on the street, the ones living three flights up in every building, are no better nor worse than the well-dressed crowd she'd meet in Mayfair.  Her maidservant grew up a block to the left.  Her cook has a brother living down at the end of the alley and visits him every Sunday.  Your heroine's problem is not that the streets are populated with slavering hyenas.  It's that she's conspicuous. 

In My Lord and Spymaster I try to show the heroine as someone who comes from the mean streets, who understands them, who recognizes the dangers but doesn't see the place as some filthy hell filled with demons.

St Giles, in the Regency. See the streetlamp
The alley to the right was Dark Passage--and wasn't that a fine descriptive name?  To the left was Dead Man's Way.  Another piece of poetry.  When she was a kid she'd run this warren barefoot.  She knew these streets, knew every thin trickle of an alley that ran into Katherine Lane.  She'd been born in a grim little attic a dozen streets to the north.  Time was, she chatted friendly and easy with every beggar and pimp on the Lane.  She could have ducked into any of these taverns and been welcome to dry out by the fire.  Now she was a stranger.  Not Jess, any more.  Now she was 'Miss Whitby' and she didn't belong.  


From the outside, all rookeries look the same, but some are more dangerous than others. 
Ludmill Street was peaceable in its rough way.  Safe enough, if you knew what you were doing.  When a pair of Irishman approached, making monetary offers, she snapped back, sharp, in Italian.  They left her alone, thinking she belonged to the Italians.  There were lots of hot-tempered Italians in this section who didn't like even their whores approached by Irishmen.  A few hundred yards further on, she sent an Italian boy on his way with a Gaelic curse.  Lots of hot-tempered Irishmen in this quarter, too.  

When she got to the Limehouse, to Asker Street, it would be considerably more dangerous.  She'd be unwise to visit alone.   

Every illustration we have of the East End of London from the Regency period is someone from outside, making a point with his picture or his description.  Saying as much about himself as he does about what he's reporting.  Hogarth's Gin Lane is propaganda.  Propaganda from the good guys, but still, a selection of detail to make a point. Bob Dylan's 'Propaganda all is phony' sums it up.

How this relates to writing --  I'm good with 'she wandered into a bad section of town' trope as a reasonable way to put the heroine in peril.  But I regret when these scenes imply that the poor of London were a seething cauldron of evil into which she had incautiously been tipped.  I dislike the: 'they look like me and are well-dressed = good; They look different and are poor = rabid animals' equation because it strikes too close to attitudes from our own era. 

This is Bond Street.  Not as fancy as we imagine it.
If I wanted to research a scene in the East End in 1800 . . .   Yes, I'd go to books and learn the geography of the place and the physical conditions and the particular 1800-ish habits of the local criminals.   But I''d want to think about the bad sections of a modern city and the people who live there and how I'd represent the adventures of someone who walking into those streets.  When I exaggerate for high drama -- what am I saying about my character and myself?  When we're writing about the past, we're also writing about the present.

. . . much later ETA: 
I got a review on a short story of mine that said -- paraphrasing here -- "Your heroine falls on hard times and works in Whitechapel scrubbing floors.  I can't believe that.  Is 'scrubbing floors' supposed to be a euphemism?"
The implication is, all the thousands of young women in Whitechapel were whores.
The implication is, there were no respectable poor living in Whitechapel.
The implication is, poverty = depravity.

When we look at the past, we see our opinions and expectations reflected back at us.  


  1. Interesting, thought provoking post. What you say about the people living in the "bad neighbourhoods' holds true today, and also what you say about how the 'she wandered into a bad section of town' trope is written is just as relevant for writers of contemporary fiction. In fact, it applies when writing about whole countries, let alone neighbourhoods!

  2. An excellent point.

    I've read 'high adventure' accounts of travelling to exotic foreign lands ... where I happened to live and they are not all that exotic, really.

  3. About 15 years ago I met a friend one afternoon for tea in Washington, DC, and then had to drive to Baltimore for a business meeting in the following morning. I sat with my friend a little longer than planned, and it was dark when I tried to find my way onto the Washington-Baltimore Parkway.

    I took a wrong turn, and ended up in a very poor, rough part of town, NE Washington, hopelessly turned around, unable to see the map's tiny print in the rental car's dim map light. I looked around the neighborhood, but the streets were empty.

    Then I saw a young man in neat business casual clothes and a briefcase (now I suppose it would be a backpack). He looked like he was coming home from work. I rolled down my window and called across the street, asking him how to get to the parkway. He came half-way into the street, gave me directions, and off I went.

    The next day, the people at the meeting were horrified. Some must have thought I was a reckless fool. There was some risk, but minimal considering all the circumstances. They saw in their mind's eye part of a faceless menace. I saw a young guy coming home from work.

  4. A gentleman of my acquaintance who grew up on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side—Jacob Riis territory—told of being in school around the time of WWI. His textbook spoke of "the poor, underprivileged people on Rivington Street" and he was outraged. "Who's underprivileged?" he wanted to know.

  5. Anonymous10:22 AM

    Great points, Jo. I got lost in Harlem one time in the very early '70s and a very nice person directed me back to the right road.

  6. Wonderful post - in a lot of ways. What you say about the neighborhoods- yes, absolutely true just as much now as then. The really bad neighborhoods ARE dangerous, of course- I know, I lived in one where there were murders and rapes going on all around us and it was hardly worth reporting thefts, since the police didn't like to come there and all they'd do is take your report and tell you you should move someplace safer. It was right on the border between rival black and hispanic gangs and I quickly learned which streets were relatively safe to walk on to get to the beach. But our neighbors were great- salt of the earth- bus drivers and teachers aids and we all did our best to look out for one another.

    Most of the neighborhoods that people call 'bad' are nothing of the sort. They're just working class neighborhoods where the homes are of a size that don't require intercoms to talk to family members and where music gets played (often loudly) on car stereos instead of in concert halls.

    And your point about being conspicuous- also true- and just as much true for travel. My first thought when I go to a place that's really different from the US or Europe is how to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. This isn't usually so much for safety as just to be able to get a genuine 'feel' for the place. You can't do that anywhere when you are the focus of everyone's attention.

    Thank you very much for the references! I have no doubt I'll be able to put them to good use.

  7. We see the Regency and Victorian slums through the lens of historical -- especially Victorian -- moral philosophy. How can we help doing otherwise when these are the original source material?

    In 1813 or 1850, when little Peter asked, "Why are those people outside the carriage so poor?" Mummy answered, "Because they are evil, stupid and lazy, dear."

    So when Peter grows up and he writes about the slums, that's what he sees.

    Our myths are self-protective. If poor people had not been inherently evil, stupid and lazy, the rich of 1810 might have had to ask themselves, "Why are those people outside the carriage so poor?" They might have had to reexamine their view of the natural order of things.

    The French Revolution scared the crap out of the establishment because it did examine these axioms ... and because it confirmed that the poor are dangerous.

    But we, as writers in the Twenty-first Century don't have to buy into Nineteenth Century fears and prejudices.