By Mary Brodbin
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The Blackest Streets

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Sarah Wise, The Bodley Head, £20
Issue 328

Just north of Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End a series of monumental redbrick tenements cluster round a Victorian bandstand. It is the pioneering Boundary Estate, built in 1900 by the London County Council (LCC) on the rubble of the Old Nichol, London’s most notorious slum.

The Old Nichol had gained a lurid reputation for gangs and crime. But, in The Blackest Streets, Sarah Wise goes back more than a century and excavates the true history of the Nichol. She describes the conditions dispassionately, bringing out the resilience and self-respect of the slum dwellers, while not ignoring the squalid reality of a life led trying to survive.

One thing was sure: it was criminally poor. Made up of 30 or so streets of rotten jerry-built houses, the Nichol was home to nearly 6,000 people. Some passages between the houses were so narrow it was necessary to walk through them crabwise. Large families worked from home, in single rooms or windowless cellars, some in the lethal trade of making matchboxes. The death rate was double the rest of Bethnal Green.

Overcrowding allowed landlords to earn up to ten times more per cubic foot than the most elegant squares in the West End. Investing in slums was highly profitable, and peers, magistrates and the Church of England were making 150 percent profits.

In 1889 the statistician Charles Booth produced a colour-coded Poverty Map of London and black streets stood for class A: “Occasional labourers, loafers and semi-criminals”. Among the five biggest splodges of black were the streets of the Nichol (hence the book’s title).

The Nichol became a focus of public attention. Journalists, the clergy, charity workers and others condemned its inhabitants for drunkenness and criminality. The solution, said some, lay in internment camps, forced emigration or even policies to prevent breeding. Booth’s own proposal was “to tear down the black streets so that class As could find no sanctuary”.

But a growing number of people refused to accept that poverty derived from genetics or ill luck. New working men’s radical associations urged rent strikes, with anti-landlord speakers in Victoria Park attracting thousands.

Revolution was in the air. Ideas of republicanism and ultra-radicalism grew sharply among the poorest of workers, caused partly by the slashing of wages in 1871. The Labour Protection League was founded.

Meanwhile, European socialists and anarchists fled to London from suppression in their own countries. One, Frank Kitz, a textiles dyer, moved with his printing press into the Nichol. He teamed up with another resident, Charles Mowbray, a tailor who was campaigning to organise his trade. Both men joined the Socialist League and were befriended by William Morris.

But revolution passed Britain by, and a salvation of sorts had to be looked for with the formation of the LCC in 1888. The Nichol was razed to the ground, and its landowners were forced to emerge from the woodwork to claim their generous compensation. In 1900 the Boundary Estate was opened. Predictably, just 11 of the 5,719 evicted Nichol residents could afford to move to the new estate of 900 two- and three-bedroom flats.

Booth updated his poverty map in 1902 and the Boundary Estate became a pretty pale pink (grades E, F and G: “working class comfort”). But the neighbouring streets where the Nichol residents had been forced to seek shelter went in turn from pink to black. They were living the same old way – one family of five was found inhabiting a scullery. Homelessness in Bethnal Green rose by 8,000 and rent had soared by 27 percent since the 1880s (the London average was 12 percent). The thousands evicted from the Nichol were a major contribution to the crisis.

Today the Boundary Estate is home to Bangladeshis, white Bethnal Greeners and middle class incomers who fork out at least a quarter of a million pounds to buy the flats that have gone private. Residents are repeatedly harangued by Tower Hamlets Council to vote to transfer the stock into housing association ownership, which would relieve the authority of all responsibility for its maintenance. Residents repeatedly refuse.

Sarah Wise has dug deep into the archives to throw light on the reality of life in the Nichol. It was not as criminal as had been made out – for instance there was only one killing between 1885 and 1895. She is fantastic on statistical detail and brings it to life vividly by interweaving the recorded reminiscences of a one-time Nichol resident, Arthur Harding, made in the 1970s when he was nearing 90.

Wise reveals that the attitudes that prevailed then are not much worse than those touted today. It seems that today’s “sink estates” are the new slums, and politicians prefer scapegoating the poor to providing decent housing.

This is a fantastic book, and unusual in that it provides a wealth of research while being totally page turning.

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