Popular Print Culture and the Formation of Slumming – Lindsey Peet

During the nineteenth-century, members of high society became curious about the slums and its inhabitants. For many of those interested in the slums, the slums were seen as an adventure, where lust and danger could be found [1]. For others the evils that lurked within the slums provided them with an opportunity to change the morals of the people living within the slums. High society’s interest in the slums developed over the course of the nineteenth century, as more books and pamphlets were being published and more people began to read, leading to affluent people ‘slumming’ it.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s the slums were at the heart of many political and social debates due to the spread of cholera across large parts of the country, affecting mainly the poorer classes. The spread of disease in the slum areas of the cities created fear amongst the high society leading to doctors and social reformers examining the cause of the disease. One such person was Doctor Neil Arnott, who in 1842 published his account of the condition of the Glasgow slums.

“There were no privies or drains there, and the dungheaps received all the filth which the swarm of wretched inhabitants could give”[2]

Arnott, N, 1842.

unknown strangers M00009 532
The Strangers Guide or Frauds of London Detected, Being a Faithful Discovery of all the Cheats, Stratagems, Impositions, Artifices, Frauds and Deceptions, Which are Daily Practised in the Metropolis, 1801.

In the first half of the nineteenth century people from various levels of society were becoming more aware of the conditions of the slums through popular print and literature, such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Various pamphlets, such as The Strangers Guide, were printed in order to highlight the areas of danger in the slums and the types of people that inhabited the area. These pamphlets heightened the sense of the ‘other’ amongst the high society and intrigued many to seek out and explore the slums in search of the characters portrayed within them [3].

The illustration below is from another one of the typical fictional guide books that were popular in the nineteenth century. Life in London Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn. Esq and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom  follows Jerry Hawthorn’s excursions around various parts of town accompanied by Tom and his other friend Logic. The particular excursion depicted in the illustration is their trip to spend time amongst the ‘Cadgers’. Tom explains to Jerry that the fraudulent beggars that operate throughout the city gather in the slum taverns and can be seen in their true form; this, for Tom, will be the highlight of Jerry’s trip [4]. Both the guide above and the illustration below portray the poorer classes as the villains of cities, tempting the upper classes to view the frauds in their natural habitat, in the form of slumming.

Slumming became a popular form of entertainment for the members of high society and reached its peak between the late 1880s and the 1890s due to the rise in philanthropic interests in the slums. Tours were often created for foreign travellers to the cities, who were intrigued and drawn to the slums in order to experience the difference in culture and lifestyle. Slummers often went as part of a group, which usually consisted of a clergyman and a plain clothed constable.[5]

Tom and Jerry 'Masquerading It' Among the Cadgers in the 'Back Slums' in the Holy Land, from 'Life in London' by Pierce Egan (1772-1849), 1821 (coloured aquatint)
Tom and Jerry ‘Masquerading It’ Among the Cadgers in the ‘Back Slums’ in the Holy Land, from ‘Life in London’ by Pierce Egan (1772-1849), 1821.

As philanthropic ventures became more common towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, women from the middle and upper classes became interested in improving the lives of the poor. It was estimated the approximately half a million women were involved in the charitable work within the slums [6].The work that women undertook varied greatly, depending on their occupations and their relationship with a charitable organisation. These women helped immigrants settle in to their new homes, find work and provided education for their children. This enthusiasm, according to Ellen Ross, again relates to observing the ‘other’ and was similar to the experience middle-class women faced when venturing out as missionaries  in the Empire.

The social reformers who explored the slums in order to find out the cause of the problems that many poor people faced often claimed that one of the main problems the poor suffered from was drinking. In the nineteenth century drinking alcohol was common problem amongst all levels of society. However the problem was more common amongst the working class for several reasons. One of the reasons was because alcohol was a cheap and safe drink [7]. Moreover alcohol was easily accessible to the workingman, due to the presence of travelling publicans [8].

In Henry Mayhew’s The London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew interviews several working class men working on coal dust pits about their lifestyle [9]. The men interviewed point out that the dusty conditions of their work required them to drink large quantities of fluid to keep hydrated throughout the day. However when asked about what they drink during the day, most of the men did not trust the purity of the water and found that cold drink options were limited to alcohol, due to cost and accessibility [1o]. This excessive drinking led to the men drinking everyday and encouraging their children to drink with them. Although these men had been heavy drinkers in the past, many of them had given up drinking alcohol, something that Mayhew praises them for.

Slumming as a form of entertainment had developed in the nineteenth century due to a combination of fictional travel material that highlight the unknown delights and dangers that the slums had to offer, and the works of reformers such as Henry Mayhew, which alerted the middle and upper classes to the suffering of the poor. This created two types of slummers, the indulgent slummer, who ventured into the slums in search of danger, and the moral slummer, who wanted to help improve the lives of the slum dwellers. However whatever the purpose of the slummers’ visits, it increased interest in the conditions of the slum dwellers and helped improve the lives for many slum dwellers.

Lindsey Peet


  1. Gaskell, M., (ed) Slums (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p.7.
  2. Roemer, N,. ‘London and the East End as Spectacles of Urban Tourism’ in The Jewish Quarterly Review, 99:3 (2009), p.418.
  3. Royston Pike, E., Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain (London: Routledge, 1966).
  4. Egan, P., Life in London Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn. Esq and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom (London: Chatto and Windus, 1821), p. 374.
  5. Steinbrink, M., ‘‘We did the slums!’ Urban Poverty Tourism in Historical Perspective’, Tourism Geographies: An International Journal on Tourism Space, Place and Environment 14:2, p. 221.
  6. Ross, E. (ed), Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), p.3.
  7. Gaskell, Slums, p.27.
  8. Mayhew, H., London Labour and the London Poor (London:Griffin, Bohn and Company, 1861) , p.246.
  9. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, p.246.
  10. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, p.247.