Charles Booth visits Shelton Street

‘… In little rooms no more than eight feet square would be found living father, mother and several children. … as to not a few it is a mystery how they live. Drunkenness and dirt prevailed … violence was common, reaching at times even to murder. … Not a room would be free from vermin, and in many life at night was unbearable. Several occupants have said that in hot weather they don’t go to bed, but sit in their clothes in the least infested part of the room.’

From the introduction to the profile of Shelton Street in Life and Labour of the People in London Volume II , Charles Booth, 1891.

Charles Booth was a Victorian businessman and social scientist; we might say ‘sociologist’ in today’s terminology, although his work examining the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s and 90s doesn’t have the academic detachment of today’s practitioners. His initial motivation seems to have been indignation at assertions made by The Social Democratic Federation that more than a million people in London lived in great poverty. Funding his own researches, he set out to disprove such ‘incendiary’ allegations; but he eventually concluded that the reality was much worse.

His 17-volume survey Life and Labour of the People in London was a more forensic study of the capital’s poverty than the great Henry Mayhew survey of forty years earlier. He defined the ‘poverty line’ separating those who were just about managing to make ends meet from those who were in dire straits. Street by street, Booth’s team visited every house and interviewed – or tried to interview – the inhabitants. Booth’s callers included missionaries who had known some of the residents for years.

Booth’s map.


One of Booth’s great contributions was his colour-coded mapping of London according the quality of life found on each street, the ones coloured black being the worst. Inevitably, there is a gulf between the well-meaning proto-sociologist and the desperate lives of the subjects of his inquiry. Booth’s admirably laconic accounts tend to slapstick whenever he or his researchers encounter resistance.

Shelton Street in Seven Dials was one of Booth’s blackest streets. Here’s an excerpt from Booth’s profile of the residents of number 8:

‘The mother is a notorious drunkard, very violent in her cups, often in trouble with the police, and struck the protestant missionary in the face in defence of her holy mother of God, backing this up with oaths and foul language. The third floor was occupied by more Irish, and one of these, a powerful woman took an active part in the attack on the missionary, driving him downstairs into the shelter of Mrs McConnell’s shop. … In the parlour at no. 8 a man one day told the visitor that, although a Catholic, he did not believe in anything but beer.’

Gustave Dore again: a generic London slum of the 1860s.

The reader grasps at these moments of light relief because the overall picture is so bleak. Drink and desperation feed each other in an unremitting cycle. The man who lived ‘only for beer’ is next described attempting to sell his pocket knife to buy booze and, unable to find a buyer, taking out his frustration by shoving it into someone’s heart.

‘In the adjoining room on the third floor lived a man of fifty with a woman of about the same age. He was a market porter and drank the larger part of his earnings. Most of what came home to the woman went also immediately to the public house. The man was never to be seen sober, but came rolling and roaring upstairs into his room. This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

At number 11 a wedding ‘led to a row which lasted several days, the friends of the bride and bridegroom having come to blows, while the police interfered in vain.’

‘At number 25 lived a big man who was employed at one of the music halls. … This man’s house and family have been all along the ideal of the drunkard’s home. On the second floor lived a well-known character, one Welsh who sold shellfish in the neighbouring streets and drank all he made. This man’s house was even worse than that of the music hall servant.’

‘The Organ in the Court’. Dore’s illustrations are theatrical and unreliable in purely documentary terms, but his contribution to posterity’s image of Victorian London is immense.

On the second floor of number 18 Shelton St., he records the situation of Mr. and Mrs Parks and family. Mr. Parks ‘… served in India as a soldier, and was discharged in ill-health suffering from pains in his head and loss of memory due to fracture of the skull and sunstroke. His drinking habits also stand in his way. He does house painting when he can get it, which is rare. The mother works hard for her children …’ He concludes with a sinister observation: ‘These people have seven children but eight years ago two of them, aged nine and eleven, going to school in the morning, have never been heard of since’

At number 24, the first floor was the story ‘of utmost horror’ concerning a drunk who beat his wife to death. On the third floor of number 28 lived a market porter and his family, a man who ‘became a great drunkard’ and whose wife said she had lost all heart: ‘The panels of the door told their story of drunken violence. The man belonged to an association in Clare Market called ‘The Guzzler’s Club’ …’ As for number 33, ‘the missionary remembers well. An Irishman tried to throw him downstairs …’

Shelton Street today is absorbed within Covent Garden’s retail zone. Under normal circumstances (remember normal?), I would conclude with a neat and no doubt predictable comparison between late Victorian poverty and contemporary consumerism. But in our present locked-down state, it is the couple Booth profiled at no.8 who haunt me the most. Below my front door is a mat, a gift from a loved one, emblazoned with Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’. This once-amusing item has now acquired a darker implication, something much nearer Sartre’s original intention. ‘This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

Blitz Spirits

A phlegmatic caterer, London, 1940.

It should have come as no surprise that The Great Quarantine of 2020 has shown life at its best and worst. Whilst we applaud the heroism of front line care workers and essential service providers, we also have to suffer the manic hoarding of the panicked or entitled, the mendacity of elected officials, and a smorgasbord of craziness from nutjobs of all sorts – e.g. the ones burning down telecommunication masts because ‘5G spreads the virus’. (This last a modern equivalent of flagellation as a prophylactic against The Black Death.)

These are difficult times to negotiate without recourse to a stiff drink or two. Our favourite bars are shuttered and silent, their ‘bottly glitter’ dulled, the pumps covered as if they were dead. At least we can still buy liquor to drink at home. But the role of drink in a crisis is bound to be controversial. Last week, The Independent ran an opinion piece that argued for the closing of off-licences during the pandemic. The article, by Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at the University of York, advocated a ‘Dry Covid’ and was as well-intentioned as it was naïve. The Independent tweeted the column …

The Independent@independentOpinion: Let’s try “Dry Covid” – lockdown is the time to kick our national alcohol habit for good

… and the response from the twitterati speaks for itself. Here are a few of the many, many replies (with the great Irvine Welsh leading the charge):

Irvine Welsh @IrvineWelsh
Get fucked you dozy cunts

Tom Lynch @BahnstormerTom
Fuck right off.
Kind regards,
Everyone

Stephen Graham @PlopGazetteOpinion: Let’s try fucking off.

Ruth Mitchell @BeerFaerie
I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “Fuck Off”.

Ciara McShane @Ciara87C
Absolutely fucking not.

Jim Cognito @JimCognito2016
We’re suffering enough – piss off

That last tweet hits it dead on. Far be it for me to deny the deleterious effects of drink, but this is no time for piety: things are hard enough as they are. (Two days after the ‘Dry Covid’ piece, The Independent published a trenchant column by Chris Owen that thoughtfully but thoroughly rebutted Mr. Hamilton’s remarks.) Reaching for historical parallels to help us through this difficult time, the default position is invariably World War 2. Philip Ziegler’s admirable London at War 1939-45 has some detail on Londoners’ wartime drinking habits. The government realised early on that it was effectively impossible for them to close pubs, that would have been a deprivation too far. West End pubs did a great trade from the ‘Phoney War’ onwards, oases of conviviality in the blacked-out streets. (Rather hauntingly, the descriptions of wartime pubs recall Charles ‘Boz’ Dickens’s 1835 report on a gin palace in St.Giles, contrasting the darkness and filth of the surrounding streets with the ‘dazzling’ light and life of the bar’s interior.) But getting hold of booze was another matter: it was very hard to find whisky or gin, and fraudulent substitutes were occasionally served by unscrupulous barmen: war-time accounts of methyl poisoning read a little like tales of absinthe poisoning or, nearer our own time, incautious trips on LSD.

Moonlit Piccadilly in the blackout.

During a pub crawl with Dylan Thomas in the summer of 1943 the novelist Julian Maclaren Ross (whom I would nominate as patron saint for all London drinkers, we’ll meet him again another time) was relieved to discover that the Café Royal was still serving Irish whisky at a time when scotch was totally unobtainable. Beer was easier to come by but was generally weaker than it had been before the war and often ran out before closing time. Even glasses were in short supply, and pubs might ask patrons to bring their own. But despite this, pubs remained venues for social interaction, offering comradeship and temporary escape from conditions that post-war generations can barely imagine. But comparisons with the war end there. As some exasperated wag put it, in response to an older person’s reminiscence of not letting the war interfere with day-to-day living, ‘But you can’t catch the Blitz’. Any pub is a potential Petri dish for Covid19 and thus we are denied the pleasure of public drinking for the foreseeable future. I asked a friend on Facebook earlier today if she had any photos of pub interiors and she replied ‘In my dreams!’ She speaks for all of us who miss the simple joy of enjoying a drink in agreeable company – or even disagreeable company, if it comes to it. But we’re still free to drink at home and, for all the concomitant risks, it is impossible to underestimate the morale-boosting function of booze. My father served as a bombardier in WW2, seeing action in some of the most arduous theatres of the Mediterranean conflict, and he remembered with uncharacteristic solemnity the unexpected appearance of a rum ration: that’s when they knew they were in for a tough one. But a man in his regiment won the Victoria Cross for taking out a German gun emplacement single-handed, a feat achieved when he was comprehensively pissed (he was upset because a friend had been killed by a German sniper’s bullet). So courage mon brave! Drink responsibly, as the health warnings have it, no gin-scented tears please, but go ahead and drink. Your livers will save the nation. Chin chin!

VE Night, 8 May 1945, at The Feathers, Lambeth Walk.