The novelist Charles Dickens visited the Canning Town area of east London in the summer of 1857. He described the squalid conditions he found there in the following article, published in Household Words on Saturday, September 12, 1857. People who worked at the recently opened Victoria Docks were forced to live in a slum built on a marsh. There were few roads, no gas supply and open sewers ran through the streets.
LONDONERS OVER THE BORDER.
London does not end at the limits assigned to it by those acts of Parliament which take thought for the health of the Londoners. More suburbs shoot up, while official ink is drying. Really, there is no limit to London; but the law must needs assign bounds; and, by the law there is one suburb on the border of the Essex marshes which is quite cut off from the comforts of the Metropolitan Buildings Act; -in fact, it lies just without its boundaries, and therefore is chosen as a place of refuge for offensive trade establishments turned out of the town, – those of oil boilers, gut spinners, varnish makers, printers ink makers and the like.
Being cut off from the support of the Metropolitan Local managing Act, this outskirt is free to possess new streets of houses without drains, roads, gas, or pavement. It forms part of the parish of West Ham and consists of two new towns; Hallsville, called into existence some ten years since by the Messrs Mare and Company’s ship-building yard, and half depopulated by the recent bankruptcy of that firm; and Canning Town, very recently created by the works in progress at the new Victoria Docks. Hallsville and Canning Town are immediately adjacent to the Barking Road station of the Eastern Counties line. That station is connected by a junction with the North London Railway, and is to be reached by a sixpenny ride from Fenchurch Street, Camden Town, or any of the intermediate stations. Any Londoner may, in dry summer weather, at the cost of very little time and money, go out, as we have done, to see this patch of the land over the border.
If he should go out in wet weather, or in winter, for that purpose, he will doubt whether it be land that he has come to see. It is a district, at such times, most safely to be explored on stilts. The clergyman of the parish says, that he once lost his shoes in the mud whilst visiting in Hallsville, and did not know that they were gone till some time afterwards; so thickly were his feet encased in knobs of mud. The parish doctor tells us that he means, next winter, to wear fishing boots that shall reach to his thighs. The inspector of schools, when he goes to Hallsville in the winter, puts on shooting boots as a particular precaution. He may need a coracle sometimes. The whole of the ground on which Hallsville and Canning Town are built is seven feet below High Water mark. Bow Creek borders both colonies, and its water at high tide, is dammed out from them by very ancient banks of earth. The embankment is attributed to Danes, Saxons or Romans. When we first visited the place. The water in the creek was actually, to the stature of a man, higher than the ground on which we walked.
Our second visit was paid at the time of low water, on one of the Nature’s baking days. From the slight elevation of the railway station or the bridge over the creek, the district, on such a day, seems more inviting than repulsive. The wide plain of valuable pasturage – for the marshes that give ague to men, give grass to beasts – is dry to the foot and green to the eye. There are pleasant belts of trees, with here a spire, there is a church tower, upon the horizon; and, in the foreground, groups of cattle feed as Cuyp used to paint them feeding. There are a good many tall smoking chimneys that mark out the line of the creek, and there is forest of masts to tell of the adjacent Thames and of the docks; but, to the eye, the broad green Essex plain is master of the situation.
Such a plain suggests a feeling of repose. Hallsville and Canning Town seem to be enviable townlets, their small houses appearing, in the hot season, to be happy homes of men who pasture flocks and herds safe from the wear and worry of the world.
But let us go down into either townlet. It does not, in the smallest degree, matter which. The houses are built in rows; but there being no roads, the ways are so unformed that the parish will not take charge of them. We get, then, upon a narrow path of gravel raised about two feet above the grass – such paths enable men to walk not more than midleg deep about the the place in rainy weather – and we come to a row of houses built with their backs to a stagnant ditch. We turn aside to see the ditch, and find that it is a cesspool, so charged with corruption, that not a trace of vegetable matter grows upon its surface – bubbling and seething with the constant rise of the foul products of decomposition, that the pool pours into the air. The filth of each house passes through a short pipe straight into this ditch, and stays there. Upon its surface, to our great wonder, a few consumptive looking ducks are swimming, very dirty; very much like the human dwellers in foul alleys as their depressed and haggard physiognomy, and to be weighed by ounces, not by pounds. Some of them may be ducklings; but they look as old as the most ancient raven.
Perhaps this row of houses is a poor back settlement – a slum of Hallesville. We go on, and are abruptly stopped by another ditchful of stagnating corruption, bubbling as the last bubbled; while, at a little distance, is another row of houses built so that they may pour all their solid and liquid filth into it in the most convenient way, and receive it back as air, with the least possible dilution. Near these houses we find a plank by which the ditch is crossed. There is a path across a patch of green, and the path is, in one place, made up of planks rotted with wet, now dried into the soil on which they float in spongy weather. The planks tell a tale, so does the bloated and corrupt body of a drowned dog that lies baking in the middle of that patch of green. We smell the dog, we smell the ditches, and we smell the marsh, dry as it is. As we go on exploring, we find the same system of building everywhere.
Rows of small houses, which may have cost for their construction eighty pounds a piece, are built designedly and systematically with their backs to the marsh ditches; which, with one exception, are all stopped up at their outlet; and in many parts of their course also, if there were an outlet, or if it could be said that that they had any course at all, to or three yards of clay pipe “drain” each house into the open cess pool under its back windows, when it does not happen that the house is built as to overhang it. We feel a qualm in calling houses built when they are laid out as band-boxes upon the soil. In winter time every block becomes now and then an island, and you may hear a sick man, in an upper room, complain of water trickling down over his bed. Then the flood cleans the ditches, lifting all their filth into itself, and spreading it over the land. No wonder that the stench of the marsh in Hallsville and Canning Town of nights, is horrible. A fetid mist covers the ground. If you are walking out and meet a man, you only see him from the middle upwards, the foul ground mist covering his legs. So says the parish surgeon, an intelligent man and a gentleman, by whom the day work and the night work of a whole district of this character has not been done without cost to his health. He was himself for a time invalided by fever, upon which ague followed. Ague, of course, is on of the most prevalent diseases of the district; fever abounds. When an epidemic comes into the place, it becomes serious in its form, and stays for months. Diseases comes upon human bodies saturated with the influences of such air as this breathed day and night, as a spark upon touchwood. A case or two of small pox caused, in spite of vaccination, an epidemic of confluent small pox, which remained three or four months upon the spot. “I have had twenty cases of it in one day”, the doctor said. The clergyman of the parish – whose church is beyond the reach of the Hallsville people, but who is himself familiar to their eyes – told us that during a half year, when the population of Plaistow proper and Hallsville were equal, he counted the burials in each. There were sixteen deaths in Plaistow, and in Hallsville seventy two.
Let us not abstain from recording the zeal of the clergyman of this parish. In it, there are place four miles distant from each other, together with thousands of almost untaught parishioners. At a time when his incumbency was worth only one hundred and eighty pounds a year, in aid of which he had but another seventy pounds a year of private means, he for two and a half years paid at the rate of one hundred a year for a curates help, and struggled, by a pinch in his own household, to relive part of the pinch among the poor. He was obliged, after a long fight, to abandon his endeavour; for he was outrunning is income, “although living as economically as possible, making Lent to extend considerably over forty days”, These are the clergy who support the church; and there is only one way in which such men usually ask the church to support them in turn; – by giving nothing to themselves, only more succour to the poor. Thus, in the present case, appeal is made on behalf of the ignorance of Hallsville and Canning Town, inhabited by dock labourers and men employed in neighbouring works and manufactories, who live surrounded by all circumstances of degradation. The church is far from them; churchmen are asked to bring it nearer and in the best way, by establishing a mission. Thus comes into life a plea on behalf of the Plaistow and Victoria Dock Mission. We allude to that in passing; our concern here being with the bodily condition of the people.
Though there is no church near Hallsville or Canning Town, there is a small dissenting chapel, to the door of which we were attracted by a large placard touching the election of a local Board of Health. The Board of Health shone in such mighty capitals, and the details as to the manner of voting and the qualifications of the voters were described with such circumlocution on so large a poster, that we lost the smell of the place out of our noses for a quarter of a minute. Then it came back again. We walked on a few steps and were beside another pestilential ditch, bubbling a if there were a miraculous draught of fishes just below. A row of houses was arranged with little back yards dipping into it; and, in on of the backyards was arranged with little backyards dipping into it; and, in one of the backyards, three ghostly little children lying on the ground, hung with their faces over it, breathing the poison of the bubbles as it rose, and fishing about with their hands in the filth for something – perhaps for something nice to eat.
We went to the old national School, a small wooden lean-to, built at the side of the last house in an unfinished row. The poor in Rotherhithe, and here too, describe any line of very crazy cottages as Rabbit-hutch Row. The old Hallsville national school is certainly a sort of Rabbit-hutch; and not a large hutch either. When it was first knocked up, there were but thirty houses in this part of the marsh, and accommodation was required for but eleven scholars. The new town grew rapidly, and there were no means of building a new school; so that, at last, one might see the mistress on a wet day, with her umbrella up, teaching a hundred children in the dripping hutch. We are told that there have been one hundred and seventy scholars crammed into it; although, if it were a fowl-house, nobody would suppose it able to accommodate that number of fowls. By fortune, a long room, built by a publican as an American bowling alley for dock labourers and sailors, was bowled down as an alley and setup again as a new national school. It is spacious and clean. The skylights open and secure ventilation. There is a ditch full of filth sleeping at full length (we must not say running) along one side of the building, and it branches into another ditch of the same character that stinks immediately under the back window; which, therefore, is a closed shutter and no window at all. Over the two ditches, at the place where they meet, a wooden house is built; it seems by its form to have been constructed as a pleasure house on the ground of a publican who speculated in the bowling green. But now it is a home. The white blind was down at the window. Was there death as well as deadly air inside?
Of course the ditches were inevitable to the school; for there is no escaping them in Hallsville or Canning Town. The local Board of Health appears, from answers made to inquiries, to care more about Stratford, where its members live, than about colonies out in the marsh. On the occasion of our first visit, however, the Board has been active; for we learnt that a ton of deodorising matter had been recently scattered about the vilest pools. The stench, when we paid our second visit, was unmitigated.
Two years ago, when application was made by more than a tenth of the rate payers of the parish of West Ham for an inquiry into the sanitary condition of the district, with a view to bringing it under the conditions of the Public Health Act, Mr Alfred Dickens was the civil engineer sent by the general Board of Health as an inspector. His report and the evidence at his inquiry is before us as we write, and it dwells very much upon the state of Canning Town and Hallsville. We learn from this report that the area of the ditches in the parish amounted to not less than one hundred and fifty acres, according to a surveyors book upwards of thirty five years old, and that area has been increased by side cuttings at the railway and new cuttings of open sewer. Disease had cost the parish six hundred pounds in the year previous to the inquiry. There was then, of course, as now, no drainage or paving in Canning Town; the roads in winter were impassable; but the inhabitants were paying (for what they did not get) an eighteen penny rate under the Commissioners Act, not for works done in accordance with it, but “for the expenses of the act”. Also, although the parish did not take charge of their roads, they were paying a highway rate for the parishioners elsewhere. One horrible detail in Mr Dickens report has, happily, to be omitted from our sketch. Two years ago, there was in Hallsville and Canning Town no water supply. Good water is now laid on. In all other respects, the old offences against civilised life cleave to the district. The local Board of Health which the inhabitants of the parish sought and obtained, whatever it may have done for Stratford, seems to have done nothing for Hallsville, unless it be considered something to indulge it with an odd pinch of deodorising powder.
Canning Town is the child of the Victoria Docks. The condition of this place and of its neighbour prevents the steadier class of mechanics from residing in it. They go from their work to Stratford or to Plaistow. Many select such a dwelling place because they are already debased below the point of enmity to filth; poorer labourers live there, because they cannot afford to go farther, and there become debased. The Dock Company is surely, to a very great extent, answerable for the condition of the town they are creating. Not a few of the houses in it are built by poor and ignorant men who have saved a few hundred pounds, and are deluded by the prospect of a fatally cheap building investment. But who was it that named one row of houses Montesquieu Place? We should like to see in Canning Town some of the engineering works suggested by a place where on one spot you may pass out of Arkwright Street into Brunel Street and turn your back upon Graves Terrace. Was it then an undertaker who had made his money in these parts, and spent it in a profitable investment upon houses that would further freshen up his trade, who built Graves terrace in Canning Town?
Not to be unjust to the district, let us own that we found one ditch behind a row of houses covered with green matter; thus proving that it was not poisonous to organic life to the last degree. In one there was an agitation which suggested that its course was open, and we found this to be really the one ditch that has, at certain hours, a flow. It has tidal communication with the river Lea. We understood that a few of the best houses, five or six perhaps, are drained into this ditch, when it is at some distance from their windows, and thus have what is, in those parts, to be considered decent drainage.
We need hardly to say, that the level of the marsh ought to be no obstacle to the proper drainage of a town built over it. If it to be worth while to put a pump over a coal mine, certainly it is worth while to put one over the place by the river side to which the sewage of a little town may fall, until the great out-fall question is decided.