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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Victorian Slum House TV show
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.