In the 1800s, many people lived in slum housing. These were often old, run-down buildings that were in bad condition.
The rooms were small and there was no insulation, so it was often very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Often a whole family would live in one or two rooms of these houses.
There was also no indoor plumbing, so people had to use outdoor toilets and baths. Many people would drink and wash with water from dirty streams which were often full of sewage, rats, and rubbish.
Slum housing was often dangerous and unhealthy, and many people died from diseases like tuberculosis and cholera.
Life of Children in Slums
Due to the poor living conditions infant mortality was very high in the slums, about 1 in 4 children died before they were one year old.
Many slum children had to work to help provide for their families, the jobs were often low-paying, highly dangerous, and dirty. Young boys may work as chimney sweeps or clean the streets of horse manure. Girls may turn to prostitution as young as 12.
The rates of crime and violence were very high in the slums and many young people turned to crime to avoid the workhouse. Indeed, between 1830 and 1860, half of all the defendants tried at the famous Old Bailey were aged 20 or under.
Sadly child abuse and exploitation was very common in the slums.
The Doss House
If you could not afford a permanent residence you could sleep in a doss house.
Doss houses were cheap, run-down “hotels” that were often in bad condition. By the end of the 1900s, there were around 1000 Doss houses in London. I use the word “hotel” loosely as often these beds were in old warehouses or factories.
Some of the beds in a doss house became known as a “four penny coffin” as they were purely a wooden box that looked a lot like a coffin and cost four pence per night to sleep in.
A doss house would usually open around 8 pm and kick the residents out at 10 am the next day. They would cost a few pennies per night and were often filled with vagrants and beggars. It’s hardly surprising that many of London’s homeless just gave up and chose the indignity and cruelty of the workhouse over a life on the streets.
Many Victorians believed that the people living in the slums were drunks, lazy, or had made poor life choices. In reality, most people living in the slums were hard-working and trying their best to provide for their families and get a better life. They were often just unlucky.
Poverty Tourism – “Slumming”
In the 1870’s and 1880’s, some wealthy Victorians would go undercover and began to “Slum it”. They would visit the slums after dark and even pay to stay in doss houses for fun. Many gentlemen would tell tales to their wealthy friends about the unsavory people they met and their brushes with violence or death. Slumming became a popular tourism business.
While this type of Poverty Tourism may have started in bad taste it leads to more middle-class and rich Victorians encountering the harsh realities of living in the slums and growth in campaigning for better living conditions for poorer people in society.