Victorian Slumming

Slumming

Could you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Would you even want to if that person was way less well-off than you? Well if you were a wealthy Victorian then your answers would probably be yes and yes!

In the late 1800s, wealthy Victorians left their luxurious homes and took off to the slums. Slums of Victorian England became synonymous with both physical and moral ‘dirt’. The idea of moral geographies was a huge theme in Victorian England. Slums were dark, dirty and dangerous places and were viewed as spaces where immoral behaviour took place. Many slum explorers went in search of excitement and fun. Others went on philanthropic missions. Often travellers would wear cheap clothes and stay in dosshouses to have a more ‘real’ experience- oh and of course get material for books they were writing.

Common lodging house
Common Lodging House or Doss House where the poorest slum dwellers lived.

Slumming was first used in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 as it became increasingly popular. But was slumming a good thing? On one hand, slumming allowed wealthy Victorians to see the extent of poverty in England. On the other hand, however, slumming was exploitative. It subjected poor Victorians to the condensing and voyeuristic gaze of the slum tourists. I remember on one episode of the Victorian the BBC’s The Victorian Slum House where slum tourists came to watch how the poor slum dwellers lived and worked. The slum dwellers felt exploited and uncomfortable. Although the show was just reality TV, it did make me think about how poor Victorians felt about being entertainment for the rich.

The Victorian slum house
Victorian Slum House was 2017 reality TV show about the experiences of the poor Victorians living in slums.

Another question debated by historians is whether or not slums were a real space or a myth. When I first read about the ‘myth of the slum’ I gave my history book such a powerful side eye that even Wendy Williams would have been proud of. If we have evidence that these places existed, how can they be a myth?

When I sat back and thought about it some more it started to make a lot of sense. Slum narratives were largely written by slum explorers, not the slum dwellers themselves. We don’t know how they felt about the spaces they inhabited. Would they have viewed their environment as morally corrupt and dirty? Would they have called where they lived a slum?

This made me think about where I live-in South-East London. Historically and even today my local area has had a lot of bad media exposure. From riots to knife crime, my local area has seen it all. But I would never consider where I live to be a particularly bad place. Maybe it would have been the same for slum dwellers.

Charles Booth

Charles Booth
Portrait of Charles Booth, Social Reformer Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Charles Booth was a social reformer and helped to change the way society saw the poor. Booth and his team investigated poverty in London. Between 1886- 1903 Booth published volumes of his work ‘Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the People in London’ which included a poverty map. Charles Booth’s map coloured the streets of London in terms of economic status. Booths work led to poverty in London being looked at differently and to the introduction of the Old-Age Pension Act in 1908. Booth became a pioneer or social research. Charles Booth’s research has been digitised by the London School of Economics.

Charles Booth Poverty Map
Section of Charles Booth Poverty Map of Whitechapel. The black sections represent the ‘Lowest class, vicious criminals’. Dark blue meant ‘very poor’ and ‘chronic want’. Light blue is poor. Purple sections were ‘mixed’. Pink sections represented ‘fairly comfortable’ families. Red was middle class and Yellow was upper-middle class.

Board game

When I heard that one of my assignments for University this year was a creative project, I jumped at the chance to make a board game. Board games are great ways to have fun and learn. I decided to used the Charles Booth map to create a game where Players entered the slum as wealthy tourists and learn about the people and places in the slum from the viewpoint of their characters.

Game cards
Character game cards

I used Booth’s drawing of the slum in Camberwell rather than one of the more popular slums like Spitalfields. As a proud South Londoner, it was interesting to research how life was over 100 years ago just down the road. Camberwell was home to a large Irish community that fled to London during the Irish potato famine. After lots of days spent researching, and even more days spent learning how to use adobe illustrator, the game was complete.

game cards
People game cards that Players interact with.

I invited some friends and my dad to play my game to see if I had succeeded in creating an educational and fun game.

Board game play with friends
Board game night with friends.

Board games are rising in popularity. Vice says:

“Board games are books to video games’ movies: you add imagination drives the gameplay”

My friends weren’t getting the information from a textbook, they were interacting with the information and with history.

Want to see more from my friends Zipporah and Chantel? Check out their guest posts on the History of Brixton and Ted Bundy.

References

Charles Booth Poverty Map

The Victorian Slum House TV show

Why are board games so popular? VICE

Miles Ogborn and Chris Philo “Soldiers, sailors and Moral Locations in nineteenth-century Portsmouth” Area, Vol 26, no. 3 (1994)

Seth Koven Slumming Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. 2004.

Slums and Slumming in Late Victorian London

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ThrifDeeDubaiLoisLeShelle, host of MRTVStephany StoryLauren Recent comment authors
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Paul Marks
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Paul Marks

The Victorians were obsessed with poverty – and it was indeed very bad. But this obscures the point that poverty had actually been worse BEFORE the Victorian period (much worse). We do not hear much about the much worse poverty of the centuries before the Victorians – because people before the Victorians tended to be much less interested in poverty and to not bother to write about it. If you had said to someone in (say) 1600 that “people are dying in hunger and filth in London” they would have wondered why you had nothing more interesting to say. In… Read more »

Kendron
Guest

Oh you did it with this one! First of all, I LOVE history, and secondly, the Victorian Era is growing my interest on the research tip! This is some great information, especially connecting to the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century.

Kaya Marriott
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This honestly is one of the best blog posts I’ve read in a while! Super informative, with a unique perspective. I especially thought it was interesting to think that those who lived in the slums might not have actually labelled it as such. History really is written by the more powerful/most wealthy.

Lauren
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This is SUPER interesting! I had no idea about any of this (silly me) but thank you for sharing!

Stephany Story
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Firstly, I wanted to say that your blog is very good and informative. , I LOVE history, this is some great information, especially connecting to the Industrial Revolution. Kiss From 🇧🇷

LeShelle, host of MRTV
Guest

Living in the US, we have had similar “studies” about poverty. Usually from journalists writing “exposès” on the poor, trying to bring attention and aid to those who need help as well as writing awards for the journalists themselves. I’m interested in knowing if there were any elitists who went “slumming” in America. You’ve inspired me to look into it.

ThrifDeeDubai
Guest

Wow I had no idea about this & finally. I now know where the phrase “dosshouse” comes from… used to think my mum made it up when describing my messy room as a teen lol! Great read!
Dee | http://www.thrifdeedubai.com