‘… 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.
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.’
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.’
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.’