The Blackest Streets

The Blackest Streets

The Life and Death of A Victorian Slum

Book - 2009
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In 1887 Government inspectors were sent to investigate the Old Nichol, a notorious slum on the boundary of Bethnal Green parish, where almost 6,000 inhabitants were crammed into thirty or so streets of rotting dwellings and where the mortality rate ran at nearly twice that of the rest of Bethnal Green. Among much else they discovered that the decaying 100-year-old houses were some of the most lucrative properties in the capital for their absent slumlords, who included peers of the realm, local politicians and churchmen.

The Blackest Streets is set in a turbulent period of London's history when revolution was in the air. Award-winning historian Sarah Wise skilfully evokes the texture of life at that time, not just for the tenants but for those campaigning for change and others seeking to protect their financial interests. She recovers Old Nichol from the ruins of history and lays bare the social and political conditions that created and sustained this black hole which lay at the very heart of the Empire.

Publisher: London : Vintage, 2009
ISBN: 9781844133314
Branch Call Number: 942.1 Wi
Characteristics: xii, 333 pages : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 20 cm


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Dec 09, 2011

I got this book out of the library for two reasons: 1) someone recommended it in the Goodreads reviews for Lost London: 1870-1945 which I'd recently bought; 2) I thought, based on my struggles with working out historical London streets, that I had ancestors living in the Nichol around 1840. I've since discovered that my lot were actually in Haggerston, several blocks to the north, but never mind.

This is a very readable account of the neighbourhood behind St Leonard Shoreditch which, for about one century, had the reputation of being the dirtiest, poorest, and most dangerous place in London. Sarah Wise doesn't dispute the dirt and poverty, but she has some perspective to offer on the danger. The Nichol was a dangerous place to live, no doubt, but more for malnutrition, disease, and domestic violence than murder. Wise tells the story of how a rather rural area surrounded by gardens became a dark warren of poorly constructed and overcrowded buildings in a few decades. We hear what it was like to grow up in such an area, why so little was done for the residents, and finally, the grand plans to transform the neighbourhood into a wholesome and aesthetically pleasing community for the "deserving poor", with predictable results.

It's an interesting angle on the nineteenth century and underlines how much, and how very little, has changed.

Mar 04, 2010

I couldn't get through the whole book because of immense detail. I was expecting a no-nonsense blunt account of life in a Victorian slum but it had too many other stories and additional things dressing it up.


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