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Grandeur and Filth

The Victorian City: Images and Realities

edited by H.J. Dyos, edited by Michael Wolff
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2 vols., 957 pp., $85.00

The Victorian Working Class: Selections from the Morning Chronicle Service (Portland, Oregon)

edited and introduced by P.E. Razzell, by R.W. Wainwright
Frank Cass (London), distributed by International Scholarly Book, 400 pp., $20.00

The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change

by David Craig
Oxford University Press, 318 pp., $8.95

The Victorians by the Sea

edited by Howard Grey, edited by Graham Stuart
St. Martin’s Press, 132 pp., $12.50

Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class

by Steven Marcus
Random House, 271 pp., $8.95

Millions of us still live in Victorian cities; “the structures outlast the people who put them there,” as Messrs. Dyos and Wolff observe in the epilogue to their stunning book, “and impose constraints on those who have to adapt them later to their own use.” Their contributors offer some striking images of these constrains. Take, for example, Sybil Baker’s cool, minute, and frightful account of Victorian Belfast:

Belfast’s a famous northern town,
Ships and linen its occupation,
And the workers have a riot on
The slightest provocation—

the provocation being, usually, an attempt to repress their sectarian and ethnic “walks.” Just the situation of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry not so long ago; and on Miss Baker’s map there, embattled as now, are Shankhill and the Falls Road.

Other cities, if they have shorter memories and less religion, are still in large part nineteenth-century structures. London, though already in the previous century what Morris called “the horrible muckheap in which we dwell,” took on its modern randomness and enormity. Bagehot, in a famous passage twice quoted in this book, compared it to a newspaper: “everything is there, and everything is disconnected.” All possible worlds coexist in contiguous but discontinuous columns; life and death, wealth and poverty, instantaneously and pointlessly associated. The new city partook of no familiar order, had no apprehensible structure.

Mr. Craig quotes a song called “I can’t find Brummagem”—the trouble was not that Birmingham was small or elusive, but that it was everywhere and nowhere. Engels had to work to get some idea of where Manchester was; even now “the shortest way out of Manchester” is a euphemism for strong drink. And in London he memorably registered the brutal indifference of a city crowd, people not looking at one another, mankind dissolved into monads. That sense of ricocheting off thousands of meaningless urban objects, identified by Walter Benjamin in the experience of Baudelaire, is part of the consciousness of all modern city-dwellers.

L’immonde cité: nothing is better documented than the filth of Victorian cities, unless it is their grandeur. That filth and grandeur should coexist seemed to many the inevitable consequence of Political Economy., of laws as invariant as Newton’s. The grand municipal centers celebrated and exploited a system which necessarily packed the poor into slums; the roads and railways required for the conveyance of the middle classes away from such areas occasionally ripped right through them, tearing up the homes and graveyards of the poor, and for a moment offending the newly refined senses of the rich. Meanwhile the sewage of a vast population fell untreated into the rivers. In the summer of 1858 the House of Commons had to suspend its sittings because of the stench from the Thames.

The Victorians took much interest in all these developments; they loved statistics, and complied them tirelessly; and, as The Victorian City sumptuously shows, they also recorded the scene, in all its black majesty, with pencil and camera.1 They were further aware that cities don’t all develop in the same way; Birmingham, as Jane Jacobs says, was inefficient, felicitously so, having achieved industrialization by trial and error, and retained something of its old character—many small workshops, the old sporting traditions of cockfighting and bear-baiting. Manchester was infelicitously efficient—cotton, the first industry to develop mass-production techniques, simply took it over and monstrously specialized it; which is, in Jane Jacobs’s view, why Birmingham now thrives and Manchester does not.

Manchester achieved its city status only in 1853, though by then it was the second largest city in England. It was never to be one of the really vast aggregations—in 1890 it was seventeenth in the world, when New York was second and Chicago seventh. But its growth from a town of 24,000 in 1773 to a conurbation of 250,000 in 1850 was startling even in a period of rapid population growth; and the growth was all to one purpose. Now cotton has dwindled away, but urban structures outlast the people who put them there, and to live in modern Manchester is to suffer under the constraints of which Dyos and Wolff speak. There it lies, spilled shapelessly over its almost featureless plain; and around it are its satellites, the smaller mill towns, some of them on the edges of containing hills and moors. Of one of these, Oldham, the reporter sent by the Morning Chronicle in 1850 wrote:

The visitor to Oldham will find it essentially a mean-looking straggling town, built upon both sides and crowning the ridge of one of the outlying spurs which branch from the neighbouring “backbone of England.” The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives’ houses is filthy and smouldering [mouldering?]…. Pieces of dismal waste ground—all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish—separate the mills….

Ninety-five years later I was discharged from the service, heaven knows why, in Oldham. I remember a warehouse, in which I was given the regular off-the-peg blue chalkstripe suit of the time, and turned out into what English soldiers call “civvy street.” For me this was a dismal downhill slope, the Victorian back-to-back houses in a perspective obscured by fog and smoke; on that bald street no blank December day had broken, it could not pierce the dirt. It seemed an allegory; I walked down into a future.

Years later, when I went to work in Manchester, I learned to hate most not the fog and the damp (good for cotton, and thus essential to the city’s style) but rather the days of sun, of raw light on a city built for the dark. Like my betters a century earlier I retreated to the Cheshire Fringe and drove to work down those streets which, as Engels noted, enable the rich to pass through, without seeing, the houses of the poor. They had moved steadily southward. At first I thought of living in Victoria Park, now virtually downtown, swamped by 1890; a private suburb of large houses with its own gate and porter, like Rolling Hills in Los Angeles; but now crazy, choked with smoke, with enormous holes in the roads. And so to the south. The prevailing wind blows the smoke northward, and Manchester has the highest rate of chronic bronchitis in the world; so you take your children to the Cheshire suburbs. These places have amazingly high per capita incomes and no pleasures except the television, the car, and the pubs it takes you to.

In its magnificent years Manchester built a great orchestra, a great library, a great university (though it nearly foundered in the first decade from underendowment), and a great newspaper, which has now moved to London and omits the name of the city from its title. Corporate civic wealth is no longer much in evidence; things have changed. But among the features of the city which don’t change much one must count the poor. The Irish have lost their place at the bottom of the heap since the West Indians arrived, but the poor still have their quarters, sometimes the old ones.

A few months ago the Observer (February 3, 1974) ran a piece by Polly Toynbee headed “If Engels could see it now,” about the district Lower Broughton, which Engels once described after he came from north Germany to live in Manchester in 1842. The houses he wrote about in his book on the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 are still inhabited. The city, having in 1965 declared them unfit, purchased them in 1968, intending to destroy them, but meanwhile it exacted rent. They had no lavatories until three years ago, when a TV program got some action; before that the buckets were emptied into street drains. No hot water, of course, and no bathroom. The sewers still back up into the kitchens.

Meditating the text of Engels, Mr. Marcus reflects that in 1844 the Manchester workers were living in shit. It seems that some of them, in Lower Broughton, still are. When a TV program or a newspaper momentarily lifts the veil (though never as persistently as the Morning Chronicle did in the late 1840s) our suburban calm is ruffled exactly as, again and again, such revelations disturbed the Victorian middle class. We, no more than they, reflect that this wretchedness is directly related to our contentment. We prefer to say that in spite of everything things are much better. We see evidence for, and approve, slow but sure social change. But perhaps, in the early and more explosive years of the city, it was right and reasonable to expect change of quite another kind?

Manchester, it was always agreed, was the most dramatic instance, but to live in a city of some sort was now to be almost everybody’s fate or choice. By the end of the century three quarters of the population had moved in, and even at that date housing and sanitation lagged far behind. We read today of what happens when the strip miners move in on a small Wyoming community: the most obvious and disagreeable consequences are always sanitary. This was so to a quite unbelievable degree in the first industrial expansion; for, as George Rosen notes in his somber essay on “Disease, Debility and Death” in The Victorian City, civic water technology and bacteriology were late nineteenth-century inventions. The consequences of not having them were already well understood in the Forties, when death rates were rising fast; and the desire to do something about the situation was not altogether altruistic. If the poor lived in shit the rich caught their diseases; fevers bred in Tom All Alone’s in Southwark struck down the rich across the festering river.

The Victorians were quite early able to prove a direct correlation between bad housing and death rate (infant mortality in Manchester was over 50 percent, with the usual class spread). But doctors had trouble distinguishing between different sorts of fever and “malaria,” and it took time to sort them out: typhus and typhoid were not properly distinguished till 1870, and the role of the body louse in the former was a discovery of the present century, though sanitation improvements had more or less eliminated the disease before then. Many other communicable diseases were epidemic, including some that killed mostly children and some that were psychiatric in character and so never tabulated by the statisticians.

The Victorian City adds to Rosen’s meticulous account of these matters Anthony S. Wohl’s study of the role of the Medical Officer of Health, employed by the middle classes to control a dangerous situation yet constantly hampered by their unwillingness to spend much money in the process. These men continued to assert what was already known: overcrowding means a high death rate. They added that families living and sleeping in one room are likely to fall short of the highest moral standards, and many are the euphemisms for incest, which was still perfectly commonplace when Beatrice Webb was doing her fieldwork. If this news did not stimulate the burghers to action, it may at least have given them a thrill; their covert envy of the unconfined sexuality of the poor is often noted. In one of the oddest and most entertaining chapters Richard L. Schoenwald studies psychoanalytically the motives of the great sanitary reformer Chadwick, and the resistance of the populace to such instruments of civilized discontent as the water closet, which, three centuries after Harington invented it, was still by no means in general use.

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    The magnificent editing of the volumes is reflected as much in the 434 illustrations—brilliantly chosen and often beautiful in themselves—as in the organization of the thirty-eight essays. G. H. Martin and David Francis contribute an authoritative chapter on the Victorian camera. The daguerrotype of the Forties, with an exposure so long that sitters had to wear iron clamps, was a superior replacement for the portrait (in the US it was greeted, by both Morse and Hawthorne, as super-annuating the fallible artist, and that included Rembrandt) but it could not be replicated, and Fox Talbot’s photographic negative replaced it.

    It was, as the authors say, the image of the mass-production techniques of the society it would serve. The wet-plate arrived in the Fifties, cutting exposure time to ten seconds. Photography as art could still hold its own against photography as a means of record, but the Seventies saw celluloid roll film and lightproof cameras. The last step was the development of the two-tone block for newspaper printing. The Victorians by the Sea documents the democratization of the beaches, and in so doing uses some exquisite photographs by F.M. Sutcliffe, perhaps the greatest of the photographers, and some interesting “candid” shots taken on the seashore by Paul Martin, with a camera hidden in a bag.

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