Lauren Dobson, Jack Dolby, Luke Holder and Rebecca Watterson

The sight of the slum – and sight in the slum – highlights issues of class and culture, and through it many prominent aspects of Victorian life can be captured. Studying the sensory experience of the slum, allows a wider understanding of sight both literally and figuratively. Furthermore, intellectual ideas about sight were often utilised in the debate about the causes and effects of poverty in Britain.

Bill Poster-man, London, 1894 (b&w photo)
Bill Poster-man, London, 1894 (b&w photo) by Martin, Paul (1864-1942)

The slum was studied by intellectuals, journalists and novelists alike. Their use of descriptive language created an image of the slums for those that were never able to lay their eyes on these places themselves. These descriptions of the slum were also used to support political ideologies and political reforms. The visual culture of advertising in the slum changed the face of the urban experience and gave Victorian people new ways to communicate. The advertising business helped the growth of the printed media and gave rise to modern consumer culture. Yet, those who were unable to physically see had an entirely different experience. The blind were the subjects of philanthropic work but also exploitation; arguments like that of Prochaska question the sincerity of the charity the middle classes showed towards the poor.[1] The treatment of the blind raises wider questions about Victorian attitudes towards the disabled poor. This can be explored in cases looking at the health of eyes. Spectacles were not readily available to the poor until the twentieth century, however, medical knowledge about sight advanced with the development of new medical technology.

Thus, exploring the sensory experience of the slum through sight allows us to explore Victorian culture and society more widely. The sight of the slum can be understood in relation to the consumer market and also political debates surrounding poverty more generally.

[1] Prochaska, F. K., ‘Philanthropy’, in Thompson, F. M. L, The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Page 359

[2] Martin, Paul, Bill Poster-man, London, 1894. Available online: (accessed 08/12/16)