Late Victorian London was not the best of places in which to be poor, if anywhere was. And its ‘East End’ was even less inviting, with unemployment, crime, disease and starvation the most obvious indicators that the very capital of Victoria’s proud Empire had become a running sore. When over one in ten of the infants born to the mothers in its narrow and pestilential tenements failed to make it through their first year of life, there was clearly something far wrong. But identifying the problem was one thing; dealing with it took a little more commitment.
There was almost no Welfare State for those who fell through the bottom of this pit of misery and despair, with the exception of the dreaded Workhouse, whose regime was carefully calculated to be marginally below the worst that one could expect on its outside, in order to deter the allegedly ‘work-shy’. No-one with any choice would wish to endure its grim rigours, so if legitimate forms of income were unavailable, the only alternative was crime in its various forms, from prostitution to murder in the course of robbery.
Since the victims of lower working class crime were those in the lower working class themselves, it became a downward spiral, and no ‘decent’ person would venture into the ghettos that developed on the fringes of Dockland in places such as Whitechapel, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Wapping and Spitalfields. But it was possible to be seen ‘doing something about it’ without having to actually go there and smell it, and late Victorian England hosted the great age of ‘charity’ and ‘public works’.
‘Charity’ varied, from well-meaning middle class societies that held coffee mornings, soirees, jumble sales and clothing collections in order to salve their consciences, reserve a favoured seat in the afterlife, or stand out among their fellow citizens and parishioners, to organisations whose pious objectives were the relief of suffering, the reform of ‘fallen’ women, or the education of the ‘ragged street arabs’ with which the East End of London was generously endowed.
‘Good works’ were also institutionalised, and as one scandal-ridden public body after another was replaced, the poisoned chalice became the responsibility of the London County Council, which from 1889 onwards was tasked with at least appearing to do something to clean up the abscesses that scarred the world’s otherwise most prosperous city. It decided to begin with ‘housing’, to employ a flagrant euphemism.
Its first-choice project, the ‘rookery’ of Bethnal Green’s ‘Old Nichol’, was a very good example of what needed to be obliterated and replaced with something approaching houses fit for human habitation. Almost six thousand people were huddled together in some seven hundred houses (do the maths), which themselves occupied a mere fifteen acres. It was a bricks and mortar petri dish in which every contagious disease imaginable could be – and was – incubated, and it topped the ratings for every form of urban deprivation you cared to name, from infant mortality, through child prostitution, to unemployment. The eventual outcome, seven years later in 1900, was the very first public housing scheme, then – as now – known as ‘The Boundary Estate.’ It serves as a convenient location for the latest Esther and Jack Enright novel – The Slum Reaper – and while the events described therein are almost certainly entirely fictitious, once can never be certain.
Since nothing that occurs in Victorian London is immune from corruption, it is hardly surprising that Detective Sergeant Percy Enright is called in when bodies discovered in the demolition rubble are rumoured to be those of sitting tenants who had refused to move out at the behest of the shonks who had bought up the district cheaply with a view to making a massive profit on the rebuild, courtesy of their corrupt mates on the LCC. With his Scotland Yard colleague and nephew Jack confined to Records with a broken leg acquired in the line of duty, Percy is already overloaded when asked to look into the disappearance of the niece of Jack and Esther’s neighbour, and the infant twins she had been nannying. In the growing belief that all these matters are connected, Percy calls in the favour by sending Esther undercover in a wealthy northern suburb, and exploiting to the full Jack’s access to records that could prove illuminating.