People and Animals in the Slum – Ashleigh Pomeroy

st giles
The Rookery, St Giles’s; from The Illustrated London News, 22 September 1849

The Illustrated London News published this sketch of the St. Giles Rookery in London on the 22 September 1849. This was considered one of the worst slums in the nineteenth century due to the high population density. The text accompanying the image only discusses the physical conditions of this area; it does not examine the animals. This might suggest that animals were not seen as unusual within their society, but were beings that the poor came into contact with in many ways. The poor even shared their homes with their animals for various reasons, sometimes for logistical purposes and sometimes out of necessity, due to the lack of space. In addition the poor increasingly viewed animals in a practical sense, as something that they were able to exercise control over for their own benefit.

Living with the animals

Through examining the conditions that animals and people shared within the slum it is possible to understand their significance to individuals and to families. The confines in which the poor lived with their animals can also explain a lot about the attitudes that people had to their animals.

‘In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children and four pigs’ Rev. Andrew Mearns [1]

Within the slum, the poor lived in very close confines with their animals. Those who lived within the slums shared their limited living space with donkeys, cows, geese, rabbits and dogs, as well as pigs, as can be seen in the quote above from Rev. Andrew Mearns.[2] This would have been very unsanitary and would have inevitably had greater effects upon the health of society, but there was not anywhere else to keep the animals. Costermongers had no choice but to bring their donkeys into their lodgings once they had finished their daily work.[3] Space in the slum was expensive and many dwellings were already overcrowded, particularly those within St. Giles. The costermonger had to keep his donkey with him at all times, reflecting the importance of animals to individual traders, and industry more generally.

Sigsworth and Worboys argue that it was seen as practical to keep animals within the home, particularly pigs, as they produced manure and meat, both of which could have been sold to contribute to the household income.[4] Another reason for keeping animals within the home was for heat. Charles Knight explains that in the colder months, keeping animals in the house would provide heat and therefore would have saved on fuel costs.[5] Despite the stink and potential spread of disease, it would have been economical to keep animals within the the home for both personal and economic reasons.

‘This form of amusement – the keeping of pet animals – … I must own that I do not strongly recommend it’ – Mackarness, Mrs. Henry., The Young Lady’s Book: A Manual of Amusements, Exercises, Studies and Pursuits  p.350 [6]

This picture of animals within the slum homes contrasts greatly with the attitude towards animals within middle- and upper-class homes. Elle Everheart argues that some domestic manuals, such as that produced by Mrs. Henry Mackarness, explained that it was not proper to have animals within the home, and placed great emphasis on how important it was to keep them separate from the home and those that lived there.[7] The separation of the animals is in stark contrast to the physical contact between the poor and their animals. The poor often had no choice but to keep their animals within the home. It might not have been considered proper to the middling sort but for the poor it was necessary for their survival, both physically and financially.

Control over the animals

The majority of people in the nineteenth century did not consider animals as pets in the sense that they are viewed in the twenty-first century. Middling and upper-class society increasingly regarded animals in a scientific sense, an area that gained popularity due to the works of Charles Darwin and Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique. Despite this, there is no doubt that the poor were also interacting with animals, but in a different sense. Claire McKechnie and John Miller suggest that human interactions with animals increased as a result of the expansion of the British Empire and industrialization. This led to greater awareness of the importance of animals to industry, as can be seen in the above case of the costermonger.[8] It is clear then that a number of factors influenced the way that people saw and treated their animals. This proved to be very physical for the poor, which instilled a sense of control within them.

Harriet Ritvo highlights the relationship between people and animals, focusing on physical contact between humans and animals. Ritvo argues that animals were subjected to regular and harsh treatment from humans up to the mid nineteenth century, an action that she explains was seen an ‘index of depravity’ by critics at the time, and often therefore linked closely with the poor.[9] Whilst the poor may have treated their animals in awful ways this was their only sense of control in confines that they were trapped in. The notion of control is assessed by Denenholz and Danahay, who suggest that animals affected human identities due to the control held over them by the humans.[10] Animals were used by the poor to forge their own identities. Despite the fact that they were cruel, the poor were merely trying to show that they did have their own character in the slum, a space increasingly forgotten.

Whilst the upper classes were engaging with animals through reports, studies, theories and social activities, the poor were engaging with animals through harsh physical treatment. The stark contrast between the various classes is evident and perhaps shows that the poor did not have the level of education that the more wealthy citizens did to engage with animals in such a way. But the poor still found ways to interact with their animals and even if they were cruel this was defining for them.

The proximity of the animals and people within the slum, also displayed within the St. Giles image, ultimately reflected the necessity to keep animals in these parts of society. Animals helped the poor to survive in the cold weather, or when money was short. They gave those in the slums a sense of power and control, allowing them to feel significant.

Ashleigh Pomeroy


[1] Mearns, Andrew, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor (1883). Available online:

[2] Wise, Sarah, The Blackest Streets, (London: Vintage, 2009), p.6.

[3] Wise, The Blackest Streets, p.254.

[4] Sigsworth, M and Worboys, M., ‘The Public View of Public Health in Mid-Victorian Britain’ Urban History, 21:2 (1994), p.244.

[5] Knight, Charles, London, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.268.

[6] Mackarness, Mrs. Henry, The Young Lady’s Book: A Manual of Amusements, Exercises, Studies and Pursuits (London: Routledge, 1888), p.350.

[7] Everheart, Elle, ‘Rebellion: Animals and Domestic Manuals in Victorian Britain’, Proteus, 30:1 (2014),  p.4.

[8] McKechnie, Claire C. and Miller, John, ‘Victorian Animals’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17:4 (2010), p.437.

[9] Ritvo, Harriet, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.147.

[10] Denenholz and Danahay cited by McKechnie and Miller, ‘Victorian Animals’, p.437.