Unemployment and destitution often reduced the working class to unimaginable conditions; it was difficult to find a third geneneration Londoner. In the central districts of London in particular, railways and commercial buildings had displaced the poor who were crowded together into ever smaller areas. These were the street people including at times a hundred thousand children. Henry Coleman remarked that, ‘it is impossible to describe the wretchedness, dirt, and squalidness of thousands of famished and half -starved, drunken, dissolute vagabonds, who are to be seen on the street’, European Life and Manners, Henry Coleman, 1849, from London 1808-1870, The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard, 1971. Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor draws attention to the huge variety of cheap unskilled and semi-skilled labour on which London’s trades and manufactures depended; ‘the coal-heavers, the coal-barkers, the ballast-getters, the ballast-lighermen, the ballast-heavers and the lumpers’.

Navvies at the Crystal Plaace, Sydenham, 1854. Mansell Collection, from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)
Coal-heaver. Punch
The Fleet-street Sewer. Illustrated London News, vii (1845), from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

These were wage earners but there were others at an even lower level of economic activity. There were cotsermongers selling fish, fruit, and vegetables, there were street conjurers, there were crossing sweepers, shoe-blacks, and scavengers like the mud larks, and children collecting horse dung and even dog droppings. Prositution was rife. There were nearly three thousand brothels in London in 1859 and nearly nine thousand prostitutes known to the police, quite apart from those not known to them.

Costermonger with his donkey. Punch
Costermonger. London Labour and London, Henry Mayhew (1851)

London Labour and London Poor, Henry Mayhew (1851)
London Labour and London Poor, Henry Mayhew (1851)

Crossing Sweepers. London Museum, from London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)

‘Jo sweeps his crossing all day long…He knows that it’s hard to keep the mud off the crossing in dirty weather, and harder still to live by doing it. Nobody taught him, even that much; he found it out.’

Bleak House

Serching the Sewers. London Museum, from London 1808-1870, The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)

London was a huge manufacturing centre but unlike Manchester which was dominated by the cotton/textile industry its manufacturing base was very varied and individual enterprises were often on a quite small scale. It was a centre of clothing, furniture making, precision instrument making, printing, tanning, currying, engineering, shipbuilding, brewing, pottery, match-making, candle making, amongst many other industries, all fuelled by readily available cheap labour. By 1861 nearly 15% of those employed in manufacturing were concentrated in London, The Industries of London since 1861, P.G.Hall, 1861, from London 1808-1870,The Infernal Wen, Fancis Sheppard, 1971.

Cotton warehouses Portland Street, Manchester, 1858. The cotton and textile industries were huge in mid nineteenth century Manchester. Howarth Loomes, from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

River Irwell, 1859: the Victoria Bridge, as seen from Blackfriars Bridge. The Cathedral is the only non-industrial building in sight. George Grundy, Manchester Public Libraries, from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

'Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery: so much material wrought up, so much fuel consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made'.

Manchester was the place of residence of Mr. Gradgrind, 'The Great Manufacturer'. Hard Times

Royal Exchange, just before being demolised in 1868. The large Exchanges were a very important part of Manchester providing places for the buying and selling of the cotton. Their power is reflected by thier huge size. Thomas Harrison, Manchester Public Libraries, from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

The service industries too were concentrated in London. The civil service, the army, the law, medicine, and all the other professions. Carriers at sea and on the river, dock labourers, railway employees, messengers, and porters; grooms and farriers, those engaged in the catering trade, omnibus drivers and, the largest group of all by far, domestic servants. In 1861 there were about three thousand farm labourers and even thirty-two shepherds in London, London 1808-1870, The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard, 1871. It is quite common to see representations of sheep and cattle being driven through the streets in competition with wheeled traffic. London was a huge economic power and its population was the greatest centre of demand in the world but unlike the manufacturing towns of the North, like Manchester, it exported very little abroad.

Fish Market, Billingsgate. Illustrated Times, new series, xiii, 1868, from The Victorian City: Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)
Cab drivers. Punch (1847) Railway porters. Punch (1846)

A footman. Punch
A maid. Punch (1847)
London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew (1851)

Chimney Sweep. Punch (1846)

Driving livestock through the streets added to the congstion in London. In 1867 this practice was prohibited between 10am and 7pm. Illustrated London News (1864), The London Doré Saw, Eric de Maré (1973)

One of the largest manufacturing enterprises was clothing for both men and women, four or five times as many women as men worked in the clothing industry. It was very dependent on changes of fashion and very badly paid. The silk weavers in particular were much exploited. Concentrated in East London in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, they could hope to earn little more than fifteen shillings a week for a twelve hour day from which rent and the hiring of the looms had to be deducted. The sweat shops run by ‘sweaters’, described in 1840 people who would hire a room as a work shop and employ perhaps a dozen women and boys to complete partially made garments supplied by wholesalers which were then returned to them for sale The conditions in which these people worked were dreadful and the gas fires which heated the rooms in winter often raised the temperatures to eighty degrees – hence the term ‘sweat shop’.

In the early 1860s there were over 50,000 dress-makers and needlewomen employed mostly in the West End of London. It was a seasonable trade and during the season a twelve hour working day was not unusual. Although some women and girls were employed on a permanent basis, most worked casually and their work had a very marked effect on their health, particularly on their eye-sight. Their wages were rarely enough to live on. Eventually a few of the lucky ones might marry or secure work as domestic servants but the majority were apt to drift into prostitution, London 1808-1870, The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard, 1971.

A cartoon in Punch of Mary Ann Walkley, a seamestress, who died in 1863 from overwork. Punch (1863)

Trades were apt to be concentrated in particular areas. Furniture makers could be found on the fringes of the city round Tottenham Court Road (where there are still many furniture shops today), and in Shoreditch and Finsbury. Printing was across the river, Jewellery and clocks were made in Clerkenwell, and the highly skilled and highly paid coachmakers worked in Westminster and Marylebone. Soap, glue and varnish in Stratford greatly added to the atmospheric pollution which hung over London.