Experiencing the Slum: Historiographical Review – Zoe Crew

Is it possible for historians to reconstruct the everyday experience of slum living?

This essay will display that by using the historical material available, a historian can recreate a well-informed and in many ways an accurate image of the everyday experience of living in a slum. A huge amount of material exists from the Victorian period, from John Thomson’s slum photography to Charles Dickens’ romanticised narratives depicting the lives of slum dwellers. Careful analysis and comparison of this material allows the historian to construct an image that is likely to bear some resemblance to what slum living was like. However, this essay will also discuss the major problem of trying to reconstruct slum living, which is the lack of working-class voices in both primary documents and historiography. Social investigators and mappers such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth attempted to get to the heart of the slums and, in various ways, to give the working classes a voice. However although they seem to have had honourable intentions, their narratives, and thus the final product available to the historian, were always filtered through the authors’ middle-class perspective. The slum is widely acknowledged by historians such as David Ward as a middle class construction.[1] Historians have argued that an ‘imagined slum’ was regularly employed as an abstract ‘other’ that the middle and upper classes could identify against. [2] Can the historian truly capture the experience of slum living beyond this middle-class view point? This essay will seek to answer this question, by establishing what a historian can know from the available material, and what remains unknowable. [3]

Maps and surveys are a starting point for any historian seeking to learn about the everyday experience of slum life as they tell the historian about the physical conditions of slums. Early nineteenth century statistical surveys, such as C. Bowles Fripp’s of Bristol, struggle to engage properly with the occupants.[4] While Fripp’s survey was well organised, in focusing on labour skills and items owned by inhabitants, it tells the historian little about the actual lives of those surveyed. Charles Booth’s maps are very useful to any historian looking at the period. However, the main criticism of Booth is that his study was too generalised and ‘ambiguous in the sense that it was not as objective or precise as it professed to be’.[5] Booth’s creation of the poverty line grouped large sections of people together as poor; he did not define whether this classification was due to moral or economic reasons.[6] Other evidence shows that the groups Booth generalised about recognised differences among themselves; for example costermongers had respect and a higher status amongst the working class. [7] He also states in Life and Labour of the People in London, that his tables are based on ‘assumptions’.[8] He also acknowledged the flaws of his maps: by colouring a whole street in one colour category he was aware he was generalising, when ‘different parts of the same street were of very different character’.[9] Hennock points out that Booth’s classification of homes for these maps was based not on household income, but on ‘general appearance of the home’,[10] which is a flawed way to envision poverty. Despite these problems, Booth’s studies tell the historian a lot more about the residents’ lives than previous work.[11] Like Henry Mayhew, Booth’s questions can also be seen to limit the usefulness of his work; for example he created surveys when he interviewed traders in his Poverty Series, and these guided questions inevitably limited the responses he received.[12]

Despite these criticisms, Booth has often been presented as the starting point for serious discussion of poverty.[13] Historians have argued that Booth’s work on poverty is not simply a ‘set of statistics of dubious validity’[14]. David Englander and Rosemary O’Day argue that his social science studies on the occupants of London are invaluable. They discuss how Booth and his team of associates produced work that is ‘reflective, humble and humane’.[15] He was interested in the institutions that affected the lives of the slummers, therefore his concern was more wide ranging then earlier mappers of the slums[16]. Despite such immense effort, Englander states that Booth seems incapable of getting to the true experience of slum life: ‘[T]he everyday experience of the urban masses eluded him as still it eludes us’[17]. He carried out a wide range of interviews and surveys but it is questionable whether he was able to present his findings in a suitable, objective manner.[18] Surveys such as Booth’s often challenged the negative ideas of the slum districts[19], despite their generalisations. There is no doubt that Booth is useful in reconstructing slum life; however historians must consider his unreliability and generalised descriptions.

Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

One of the other ways that historians can attempt reconstruct the everyday experience of slum living is through studying photographs and paintings. Paintings and engravings by Luke Fildes[20] and Gustave Dore[21] depict weak and vulnerable men, women and children loitering in the slums.

Gustave Dore, Wentworth Street, Whitechapel (1872)

In both these images the slum dwellers are portrayed as weak and miserable; even the children are not playing with the toys they have with them. These images support the popular belief that slum life was dreary and the inhabitants were often sick or clogging up the streets for no productive purpose. The majority of the subjects in these two images are well-dressed; they look suitably dressed for cold weather, wearing heavy overcoats, shawls and hats. Photographs taken later in the nineteenth century by John Thomson reinforce these earlier images of well-dressed slum dwellers. For example pictures entitled ‘Old Furniture’[22] and ‘The Seller of Shell Fish’[23], both show traders who look appropriately dressed for their jobs, as well as having aprons to keep their clothes clean. When these images are compared with other sources, it becomes clear that the residents may not be as well dressed as they appear to be. Research has shown how although clothes may look decent on the surface, the under layers were usually in a terrible condition and not suitable for their purpose.[24] The time it took to set up the photography equipment at this time also allowed for the subjects to alter their appearance and perhaps stage the photograph. This still tells a historian a lot about slum living, as from collecting various sources together it can be seen how although the working class did not have many good clothes, they wanted to project themselves to the community and in particular to the photographer, as being in a comfortable position. This counteracts the dominant narrative of the time that the dwellers were dirty and had little self-pride. These images are useful to the historian as they show that the subjects are proud of what they have and their humanity is important to them.[25]

Thomson’s images are also useful in showing the historian the ways the working classes earnt money on the streets. Street Life in London contains many images of men and women at work, showing the historian the ways in which they displayed their goods for purchase. The short descriptions accompanying each image aid the historian in understanding the daily life of the trader. Some of the descriptions illuminate the skills these traders possessed, for example a trader in shell fish divulged that a ‘prime thirsty spot’[26] to pitch a stand was in an area with numerous public houses. The trader in ‘Street Doctors’[27] also claims to have been successfully cured of blindness by the medicine he sells. Whilst there is no way to establish if this was true or not, the story is a clever tactic to encourage people to buy his products. Adolphe Smith’s descriptions, which accompanied Thomson’s photographs, allow the historian to get a more rounded idea of how the slum dwellers earnt a living. The interviews with the traders were no doubt edited, but they still give the historian an insight into the way the street worker gained their income. Smith’s comments are reinforced by social surveys such as the Chorlton Report, which described a slum area where skilled workers such as joiners and engineers operated. The reporter notices that although the inhabitants were poor, they were decent and not dangerous as often depicted in middle class narratives. [28] Booth’s work also stresses that the poor were hardworking. He says the idea of casual work among the slummers was mostly a myth, as in the East End of London as little as 10% were casually employed, and the rest had a regular income.[29]


Historians can be certain that the descriptions of poverty in many existing sources were present in a number of slum areas. Governmental reports at the time of the slum clearances looked back at the nineteenth century housing and documented how buildings built at the start of the nineteenth century in places like Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester were built without basics such as drainage and ventilation.[30] A lack of repairs meant these houses let in water, were full of vermin and were overcrowded. These scenes were echoed in Angel Meadow, also in Manchester, where houses were declared ‘unfit for habitation’.[31] These descriptions were common across Manchester and the whole of the United Kingdom.[32] Consequently historians can be sure that at least a portion of slum dwellers had to deal with conditions like this in their daily lives. Generalisations of slum life become problematic, however, when evidence shows that not all working-class families lived in the conditions so commonly depicted. For example, one social investigator in Manchester reported that some of the poorest houses were ‘scrupulously clean’.[33]

The previous paragraphs have shown how historians can use a variety of documents to construct an image of everyday slum life. This essay will now show the problems facing historians in this endeavour. The major barrier for historians is that there is a lack of material produced by ‘slum dwellers’ themselves. There is little material showing what the working class did when they were not at work, and what does exist has led many historians to represent the poor as drinkers, gamblers and only interested in the short term.[34] Contrasting sources show a more varied life, with mentions of occasional visits to parks, small theatres, and even Regent’s park zoo.[35] The problem running through all of this material is that it is most often authored from a middle-class viewpoint.

‘The mischievous ambiguity of poverty’[36] is a theme that dominates much of the literature on the slums. Many historians, including Gertrude Himmelfarb, have pointed to how the middle classes struggled to understand the lives of the working classes. She argues that writers as different as Mayhew and Dickens were inspired to write about the poor by the concept of the ‘two nations’.[37]This feeling of alienation between the classes was the main reason that the word ‘slum’ came into popular usage in the nineteenth century. [38]  In his seminal essay on ‘The Slums of Victorian London’, H. J. Dyos questions what a slum was.[39]  He shows how, during the course of the nineteenth century, ‘slum’ went from simply being the name of a room to a word commonly used to describe rough areas of towns that were filled with undesirables. Dyos’ article shows how the word slum was a fluid term, with no fixed meaning. This lack of fixed meaning shows how the opinion of what makes a slum throughout this period was uncertain, and so a historian cannot assume that all areas described as slums were the same. Even the frequently employed expression: ‘wholly unfit for human habitation’[40] is problematic, as what may be deemed unfit by the middle classes might have been very different to what a working-class man deemed unfit.[41] This phrase shows how the middle class frequently applied their own ‘institutional presuppositions’[42] to the working man’s situation. Alan Mayne has argued that the middle class’ imagined ideas of the slum were ‘encoded with the meanings of a dominant bourgeois culture’, which thus obscured reality.[43] A definition by David Ward again highlights the divide between classes: ‘the term slum is a loose definition of the environs and behaviour of the poor. Isolated from the remainder of society, slum residents are presumed to live a deviant life’.[44] The use of the word ‘presumed’ shows how the residents in slum homes were generalised by the people writing about them. The word slum is here shown to be a middle-class construction, a way to rationalise inequality.[45] It does not consider how the poor defined themselves.[46] It can be argued that the historian today is most likely to be middle class too, and even if they had the opportunity of engaging with slum dwellers, they may have viewed the slum the same way as the middle-class of the time. If historians cannot agree on a concrete definition of a slum, and if in fact the very idea of the slum is an ‘imaginary construct’[47] as Mayne argues, then it is impossible for a historian to understand what life in one was like.

As a way to challenge these dominant narratives of the slum, recent historians have begun to examine material culture.[48] Alastair Owens praises this rejection of middle class representations.[49] Mayne has argued that archaeological items provide an incomparably good insight into the lives of the urban dwellers at this time, and he questions why material culture has been so often ignored by historians.[50] He argues that the mass of literature on the slums gives the historian a ‘false sense of familiarity’ with the past, as the only true way to know the past is by studying material culture alongside other sources. [51] Archaeological evidence challenges the ‘homogenizing, universalising and pathologizing slum images’ that historians have traditionally focused on.[52] For example, Owens shows how the abandonment of cesspits shows that the poor were concerned about their health, which is contrary to many histories that describe the poor as living in extreme filth. The contents of these cesspits, including discarded glass rolling pins and tea sets, also shows that the poor were not all living in extreme poverty, as is often depicted.[53] A fascinating example provided by Owens’ analysis of material culture is the discovery of matching tea sets in the cesspits. The presence and condition of the tea sets shows that tea drinking was an important activity in working class homes.[54] This domestic activity challenges the popular narrative that slum dwellers preferred alcohol over anything else, and actually aligns the habits of the working class with those of the middle class. A surviving letter which shows the respectability of some of the working classes was written by Jeremiah Dunn, who asked the Poor Law Commissioners for help as his family was starving; he stated that he was honest and sober and could get an employer to prove so.[55] Rare sources like this must not be lost in the wealth of narratives written by middle-class explorers. The understanding that can be gained from archaeological material is limited, yet ignoring it completely is foolish.

This essay has shown that if historians want to reconstruct the everyday experience of slum living they will have to continue to change the way they study slum history. Most representations of the slum, whether inquiries or images, were middle-class reconstructions and must not be taken as a true representation. The material published at this time was controlled by the middle class;[56] consequently much of it focuses on exploration narratives which showed the slum as both a threatening and exciting concept.[57] Historians such as Mayne and Dyos have shown how the slum was an imagined concept created by middle-class sensationalists. Historians can use the available literature alongside the developing study of material culture to get closer to the lives of the urban working class, however to define this as slum life is problematic. Recent material has started to focus on the experience of the slum dwellers themselves,[58] emphasising what Mayne says is the need to ‘explore these neighbourhoods from the inside’.[59] The historian looking to discover what slum life was like should use artefacts and texts equally,[60] so that they can attempt to avoid the stereotypes that were rooted in middle- class perceptions of the slums.[61] Historians will never be able to reconstruct the true complexities of slum life if they continue to dismiss the experiences of ordinary people, [62] by fitting new archaeological evidence into existing narratives of an imagined past.[63]


[1] Ward, David, ‘The Victorian Slum: An Enduring Myth?’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 66:2 (1976), pp. 323-336.

[2] Ward, ‘The Victorian Slum’, pp. 323-336. Seed, John, ‘Did the Subaltern Speak? Mayhew and the Coster-girl’ Journal of Victorian Culture 19:4 (2014), pp.536-549.

[3] Joyce, Patrick, Visions of the people: industrial England and the question of class 1848-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p.172.

[4] Bowles, Fripp, C., ‘Report of an Enquiry into the Condition of the Working Classes on the City of Bristol’, Journal of the Statistical Society of London 2:5 (1839), pp.368-375.

[5] Himmelfarb, Gertrude, ‘The Idea of Poverty’ History Today 34:4 (1984). Available online: http://www.historytoday.com/gertrude-himmelfarb/idea-poverty

[6] Himmelfarb, ‘The Idea of Poverty’.

[7] Brodie, Marc, The Politics of the Poor: The East End of London 1885-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.175.

[8] Booth, Charles, Elman, Richard M., and Charles, Albert Fried, Booth’s London: a portrait of the poor at the turn of the century, drawn from his ‘Life and labour of the people in London’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p.4.

[9] Booth et al., Booth’s London, p.24.

[10] Hennock, E. P., ‘The Measurement of Urban Poverty: From the Metropolis to the Nation, 1880-1920’, Economic History, 40 (1987), pp.208-227, (p.208).

[11] Brodie, The Politics of the Poor, p.2.

[12] O’Day, Rosemary, and Englander, David, Appendix II in Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered (London: The Hambledon Press, 1993), p.208.

[13] Englander, David, Poverty and poor law reform in Britain: from Chadwick to Booth, 1834-1914 (Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p.57.

[14] O’Day, and Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry p.10.

[15] O’Day, and Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry, p.10.

[16] O’Day, and Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry, p.23

[17] O’Day, and Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry, p.22.

[18] O’Day, and Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry, pp.22-23.

[19] Shapely, Peter, The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p.113.

[20] Fildes, Luke, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, oil on canvas, 1874, Tate, London. Accessed Online: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/lit/Fildes.shtml

[21] Doré, Gustave, ‘Wentworth Street, Whitechapel’, engraving, 1872. Accessed Online: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/sep/20/scapegoat-for-the-whitechapel-murders

[22] Thomson, John, and Smith, Adolphe, Old Furniture, Photograph, 1877, From ‘Street Life in London’, available online: http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:quy473hap Date accessed: 11 November 2015.

[23] Thomson, John, and Smith, Adolphe, The Seller of Shell Fish, Photograph, 1877, From ‘Street Life in London’, available online: http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:quy473hap Date accessed: 11 November 2015.

[24] Mayne, Alan, ‘Beyond Metrics: Reappraising York’s Hungate ‘Slum’’ International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15:4 (2011), pp.553-562.

[25] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.113.

[26] Thomson, John, and Smith, Adolphe, The Seller of Shell Fish, Photograph, 1877, From ‘Street Life in London’, available online: http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:quy473hap Date accessed: 11 November 2015.

[27] Thomson, John, and Smith, Adolphe, Street Doctors, Photograph, 1877, From ‘Street Life in London’, available online: http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:baf359fon Date accessed: 11 November 2015.

[28] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.113.

[29] Brodie, The Politics of the Poor, p.25.

[30] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.111.

[31] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.111.

[32] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, pp.111-112.

[33] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.113.

[34] Brodie, The Politics of the Poor p.15.

[35] Joyce, Visions of the people’, 154.

[36] Himmelfarb, ‘The Idea of Poverty’.

[37] Himmelfarb, ‘The Idea Of Poverty’.

[38] Himmelfarb, ‘The Idea of Poverty’

[39] Dyos, H.J., ‘The Slums of Victorian London’, in Dyos, H.J., Cannadine, D. and Reeder, D. (eds.) Exploring the Urban Past: Essays on Urban History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) pp.129-154.

[40] Dyos, ‘The Slums of Victorian London’, p.132.

[41] Mayne, ‘Beyond Metrics’, p.556.

[42] Brodie, The Politics of the Poor p.10.

[43] Mayne, Alan, ‘A Barefoot Childhood: so What? Imagining Slums and Reading Neighbourhoods’ Urban History 22:3 (1995), pp.380-389, (p.381).

[44] Ward, ‘The Victorian Slum’, p.323.

[45] Mayne, ‘Beyond Metrics’, p.556.

[46] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, p.380.

[47] Mayne, ‘Beyond Metrics’, p.556.

[48] Owens, A., Jeffries, N., Wehner, K. and Featherby, R. ‘Fragments of the Modern City: Material Culture and the Rhythms of Everyday Life in Victorian London’ Journal of Victorian Culture, 15:2 (2010), pp.212-225.

[49] Owens et al., ‘Fragments of the Modern City’, p.212.

[50] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, pp.384-386.

[51] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, p.385.

[52] Owens et al., ‘Fragments of the Modern City’, p.213.

[53] Owens et al., ‘Fragments of the Modern City’.

[54] Owens et al., ‘Fragments of the Modern City’, pp.220-221.

[55] Englander, Poverty and poor law reform in Britain, p.99.

[56] Joyce, Visions of the people, p.173.

[57] Ward, David, ‘The Victorian Slum’, p.323.

[58] Joyce, Visions of the people, p.256.

[59] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, p.383.

[60] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, p.387.

[61] Shapely, The Politics of Housing, p.113.

[62] Englander, Poverty and poor law reform in Britain, p.90.

[63] Mayne, ‘A Barefoot Childhood’, p.388.