The following is a reproduction of an article by T M Thomas published in Charles Dickens’s own magazine Household Words,, entitled A Suburban Connemara. Appearing in March 1851, the work provides a good insight into the slum area of Agar Town, in the Battle Bridge (now King’s Cross) area of London.
The author, T M Thomas, is believed to be William Moy Thomas (1828–1910), an English journalist, literary editor and novelist. In 1850 he was introduced to Charles Dickens by Thomas Noon Talfourd. Dickens engaged him the following year as a writer on Household Words, where he contributed until 1858.
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A Suburban Connemara.
I was born and bred in Manchester. My earliest impression—which has hardly left me yet—that all rich men are mill-owners, and all poor men and women merely spinners. I am proud of being a Manchester man; for there is not a town more orderly or better lighted and paved, or (till lately) better swept, in England. Till I was four-and-twenty I had never been out of my native town. Early and late I toiled in my father’s counting-house, without ever thinking of stirring out of it, or taking a holiday; for my father used to say, that God gave man one day out of every seven for rest, and He knew what was enough for him. I used to hear of London at that time, and to fancy that Watling Street was a kind of High Street to the Metropolis; for all our correspondents dated from Watling Street. When the railway opened, there came a great change in this respect. I made my first journey to London; and finding that I knocked off a good deal of business by the transaction, I began to run up to town nearly every week, which I have continued to do ever since.
Thus, though I am a Manchester man, I know the City as well as any Londoner. I know every court and alley of it, and can make short cuts, and find the nearest way from any one part of that great labyrinth to another. I confess I am not so well acquainted with the suburbs. I had always a favourable impression of the northern side of London, from the pretty villas and cottages which I had remarked on each side of the line, on coming up by the North-Western Railway. Therefore, having lately found it advisable to transfer my business altogether to Watling Street, City, I resolved to seek in that quarter for a residence for myself and family. Another reason induced me to select that spot. My goods are coming up continually by the North Western Railway; and having some commissions in the West Riding, who send up parcels by the Great Northern line, I wished to be somewhere between Battle Bridge and Euston Square: in order, occasionally, to give an eye to my consignments at both stations. With this purpose I procured a new map, on a large scale, in order to see all the Victoria Crescents and Albert Terraces thereabouts.
I drew out my pocket-compasses, measured the line, reduced it one half; and, on finding the unknown locality, brought one point of the dividor’s plumb upon a spot which I at once read off from the map as “Agar Town.” Looking more minutely, I observed that the particular point of the district indicated, was “Salisbury Crescent.” I could not repress an exclamation of satisfaction, as Oxford and Cambridge Crescents also met my eye. Without further delay, I struck a half-mile circle; and as I observed therein several streets and terraces bearing the names, Canterbury, Winchester, Durham, Salisbury, &c., I concluded that this was (as it eventually turned out to be) Church property; and, as a lover of order and decency, I congratulated myself on the felicitous idea that had suggested to me that neighbourhood; for I felt this circumstance to be a guarantee of an orderly and well-regulated estate.
From these high-sounding names, however, I had some misgivings that the houses in that neighbourhood might be of too expensive a class for a man of moderate means. Still, I resolved to proceed there, and reconnoitre, in the hope of finding a decent little place, at a moderate figure. So, with my map in my hand, I rode down to King’s Cross, and proceeding along the old Pancras Road, entered the King’s Road, which is the boundary of the property I was seeking. I had not gone far beyond a large building, which I found was the St. Pancras Workhouse, when I observed a woman and a number of ragged children drawing a truck. The truck contained a table, two or three old chairs, and some kitchen utensils, with a large bundle of bed-clothes tied up in a patchwork quilt. The entire strength of the company was exerted to draw the truck up the steep pathway of a turning on the right-hand side of the road, in which they succeeded at length; and the woman, struggling, with her hair about her face, and her bonnet hanging round her neck, the truck moved on, aided by the vigorous pushing of her young family behind. The pathway was some feet above the road, which was a complete bog of mud and filth, with deep cart-ruts; the truck, oscillating and bounding over the inequalities of the narrow pathway, threatened every moment to overturn with the woman, her family, and all her worldly goods.
There was something so painfully picturesque in the little group, and so exciting in the constant apprehension of an accident, that I could not help following. For a time, however, a special Providence seemed to watch over the party. I began to give up all fear of a mishap; when, suddenly, the inner wheel encountered a small hillock of dust and vegetable refuse at the door of a cottage, and finally shot its contents into the deep slough of the roadway. The woman turned back; and, having well thumped the heads of her family, seated herself upon the heap of ashes which had been the cause of her misfortune, to vent the rest of her rage in abuse of a miscellaneous character. A dustman happening to pass at the time, helped the children to restore the chattels to the righted truck.
“How fur have you to go?” he asked,
“Oh! not fur,” said she, ” only to one of them cottages yonder. It’s very aggravatin,’ arter draggin’ them goods all the way from Smithses Rents, and all along that there nasty road, all right; just to upset when one’s got here! This ain’t no woman’s work, this ain’t; only my husband’s got a job this mornin’, and we was obliged to move out afore twelve; which is the law, they says.”
“What is the name of this place?” I asked.
“This here, sir? ” replied the woman; “why, Hagar Town.”
“Agar Town?” I exclaimed, with astonishment, remembering how clean and promising it had appeared upon the map. “Do you mean to say that I am really in Agar Town?”
The dustman, who by this time had finished his job, and who sat upon the pathway smoking a short black pipe, with his legs dangling over the road, like a patient angler by a very turbid stream, ventured to join the conversation, by answering my question.
“You ‘re as nigh,” said he, “to the middle o’Hagar Town as you vell can be.”
“And where,” said I, “is Salisbury Crescent?”
“There’s Salisbury Crescent!”
I looked up, and saw several wretched hovels, ranged in a slight curve, that formed some excuse for the name. The doors were blocked up with mud, heaps of ashes, oyster-shells, and decayed vegetables.
“It’s a rum place, ain’t it?” remarked the dustman. “I am forced to come through it twice every day, for my work lays that way; but I wouldn’t, if I could help it. It don’t much matter in my business, a little dirt, but Hagar Town is worse nor I can abear.”
“Are there no sewers?”
“Sooers? Why, the stench of a rainy morning is enough fur to knock down a bullock. It’s all very well for them as is lucky enough to have a ditch afore their doors; but, in gen’ral, everybody chucks everythink out in front and there it stays. There used to be an inspector of noosances, when the choleray was about; but, as soon as the choleray went away, people said they didn’t want no more of that suit till such times as the choleray should break out agen.”
“Is the whole of Agar Town in such a deplorable state as this?” I asked.
“All on it! Some places, wuss. You can’t think what rookeries there is in some parts. As to the roads, they ain’t never been done nothink to. They ain’t roads. I recollect when this place was all gardeners’ ground; it was a nice pooty place enough then. That ain’t above ten or twelve year ago. When people began to build on it, they run up a couple o’ rows o’ houses oppersite one another, and then the road was left fur to make itself. Then the rain come down, and people chucked their rubbidge out; and the ground bein’ nat’rally soft, the carts from the brick-fields worked it all up into paste.”
“How far does Agar Town extend? ” I asked.
“Do you see them cinder heaps out a yonder?”
I looked down in the distance, and beheld a lofty chain of dark mountains.
“Well,” said the Dustman, “that’s where Hagar Town ends—close upon Battle Bridge. Them heaps is made o’ breeze; breeze is the siftins of the dust what has been put there by the conteractor’s men, arter takin’ away all the wallyables as has been found.”
At this point, the woman, who had been combing her hair, arose, and the truck resumed its perilous journey. The dustman waited, and saw it arrive at its destination, in safety; whereupon the dustman having smoked his pipe, departed. As I had, by this time, given up all intention of seeking a residence in that neighbourhood, I continued my researches, like Dr. Syntax, simply in search of the picturesque.
Crossing another bridge—for the canal takes a winding course through the midst of this Eden—I stood beside the Good Samaritan public-house, to observe the houses which the dustman had pointed out, with the water “a flowin’ in at the back doors.” Along the canal side, the huts of the settlers, of many shapes and sizes, were closely ranged. Every tenant, having, as I was informed, his own lease of the ground, appeared to have disdained to imitate his neighbour, and to have constructed his abode according to his own ideas of beauty or convenience. There were the dog kennel, the cow-shed, the shanty, and the elongated watch-box styles, of architecture. To another, the ingenious residence of Robinson Crusoe seemed to have given his idea. Through an opening was to be seen another layer of dwellings, at the back: one, looking like a dismantled windmill; and another, perched upon a wall, like a guard’s look-out on the top of a railway carriage. The love of variety was, everywhere, carried to the utmost pitch of extravagance. Every garden had its nuisance—so far the inhabitants were agreed—but, every nuisance was of a distinct and peculiar character. In the one, was a dung-heap; in the next, a cinder-heap; in a third, which belonged to the cottage of a costermonger, were a pile of whelk and periwinkle shells, some rotten cabbages, and a donkey; and the garden of another, exhibiting a board inscribed with the words “Ladies’ School,” had become a pond of thick green water, which was carefully dammed up, and prevented from flowing over upon the canal towing-path, by a brick parapet.
I remember to have seen, in a book written some time since, a chapter devoted to the beau idéal of an English villa and estate. The village church was, at that period, considered of some importance, and an approach thereto by a good road was treated as an element in securing the comfort and well-being of the villagers. I looked for the “heaven-directing spire,” and thought of the bogs, sloughs, and quagmires that must; necessarily, be struggled through by a pious parishioner; and I wondered whether it was possible for any amount of courage and patience to prevail over the difficulties. The English Captain, who attended church at San Francisco, in fisherman’s mud-jacks, with trowsers close reefed up each leg, felt all his misgivings at his grotesque appearance vanish when he saw other men dressed like himself, and observed that the prevailing costume for ladies was Wellington boots; but, I should like to know what sympathy an inhabitant of Agar Town would get, if, on a Sunday morning, he presented himself before the parish beadle thus attired! The Rector of St. Pancras has endeavoured to meet his parishioners in this district, half-way; for, finding the difficulty of moving Agar Town to church, he moved the church to Agar Town; and a neat little structure, or temporary church, is now conveniently planted in the dirtiest part of the district.
The inhabitants themselves exhibit a genuine Irish apathy. Here and there, a barrow or two of oyster shells, broken bricks, and other dry materials, have been thrown into the mud. In Cambridge Row, I observed that some effort had been made to get a crossing; but, a sign-board indicated that it was to facilitate the approach to “The back door of the Good Samaritan.”
Continuing my way until I came within the shadow of the great cinder-heaps of Mr. Darke, the contractor, I turned off at Cambridge Crescent, to make the hazardous attempt of discovering a passage back into the Pancras Road. At the corner of Cambridge Crescent are the Talbot Arms Tea Gardens, boasting a dry skittle-ground, which, if it be not an empty boast, must be an Agar Town island. The settlers of Cambridge Crescent are almost all shopkeepers—the poorest exhibiting in their rag-patched windows a few apples and red-herrings, with the rhyming announcement, “Table-beer, Sold here.” I suspect a system of barter prevails—the articles sold there comprehending, no doubt, the whole of the simple wants of the inhabitants; a system, perhaps, suggested by the difficulty of communication with the civilised world.
A stranger in these parts immediately attracts the attention of the neighbourhood; and if he be not recognised for an Agarite, is at once set down for a “special commissioner,” about to report to some newspaper upon the condition of the inhabitants. I met no one having the air of a stranger, except an unlucky gentleman, attempting to make a short cut to the London and York Railway station; and a postman, vainly inquiring for Aurora Cottage. There were Bath, and Gloucester, Roscommon, Tralee, and Shamrock Cottages; but Aurora Cottage, being probably in some adjoining street, was entirely unknown to the mud-bound inhabitants. The economy of space which I had observed from the bridge, was also apparent here. Every corner of a garden contained its hut, well stocked with dirty children. The house of one family was a large yellow van upon wheels, thus raised above high mud-mark. This was the neatest dwelling I had observed. It had two red painted street-doors, with bright brass knockers, out of a tall man’s reach, and evidently never intended for knocking—the entrance being by steps at the head of the van; indeed, I suspect that these doors were what the stage managers call “impracticable.” The interior appeared to be well furnished, and divided into bed-room and sitting-room. Altogether, it had a comfortable look, with its chimney-pipe smoking on the top; and if I were doomed to live in Agar Town, I should certainly like lodgings in the yellow van.
As I proceeded, my way became more perilous. The footpath, gradually narrowing, merged at length in the bog of the road. I hesitated; but, to turn back was almost as dangerous as to go on. I thought, too, of the possibility of my wandering through the labyrinth of rows and crescents until I should be benighted; and the idea of a night in Agar Town, without a single lamp to guide my footsteps, emboldened me to proceed. Plunging at once into the mud, and hopping in the manner of a kangaroo—so as not to allow myself time to sink and disappear altogether—I found myself, at length, once more in the King’s Road.
It is not my wish to inquire into the affairs of the ground landlords, or to attempt to guess at their reasons for allowing such a miserable state of things to exist upon their property. I have understood that the fee of the estate is in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and that the present owners hold it only for a term of three lives; with a power of leasing for periods not longer than twenty-one years each. If this be the case, perhaps no respectable tenant could be induced to take the land for so short a term upon a building lease. Yet, when it is considered how much, it would have been for the benefit of all parties that decent and comfortable dwellings should have occupied the ground, instead of the wretched huts to be found there, it is much to be regretted that some arrangement was not entered into for that purpose. The place, in its present state, is a disgrace to the metropolis. It has sprung up in about ten years. Old haunts of dirt and misery, suffered to exist in times when the public paid no attention to such matters, are difficult to deal with; but this is a new evil, which only began to come into existence about the time when Mr. Chadwick’s Report first brought before the public a picture of the filthy homes and habits of the labouring classes, and of the frightful amount of crime and misery resulting therefrom.
In Agar Town we have, within a short walk of the City—not a gas-light panorama of Irish misery, “almost as good as being there,” but a perfect reproduction of one of the worst towns in Ireland. The land is well situated—being high for the most part—and therefore capable of good drainage; and, although too great a proximity to the cinder-heaps might make it an objectionable site for a superior class of dwellings, no spot could be better adapted for the erection of small tenements for labouring men and mechanics. It is close to the terminus of one of the great trunk railways, where a large number of men—officers of the company and labourers—are employed. There are, also, many large manufactories in the neighbourhood. The men employed in these places must reside near their work, and are consequently compelled to take any accommodation, however miserable, which the neighbourhood may afford, and at whatever cost. A respectable mechanic told me that he paid for his hut a rent of six shillings per week. This contained two rooms only—upon the ground, for there was no upper story. It appeared to have hardly any foundation, the boards of the floor being laid upon the earth, without a brick between, to prevent the dampness oozing through; a manner of building which has been repeatedly pointed out, by the Sanitary Commissioners, as productive of disease. The place was altogether of the rudest and most comfortless description, and could not, I was assured, have cost more in the erection—built as it was of old fragments of brick and plaster—than forty pounds.
It was not by choice, but by necessity, that this man lived in such a place. In various parts, a certain air of cleanliness in a dwelling, here and there, contrasting with the filthy state of the street, gave evidence of other inhabitants who had not been led by a mere taste for filth and wretchedness to take up their abode in Agar Town. These poor people cannot help themselves; toiling early and late, the Struggle to provide for the ever-renewing wants of the day, exacts all their time and energies. Who will help them?