These Grim Realities of Life in London's 19th Century Slums Make Us Squirm

London’s many slums were all cold, damp and thoroughly miserable. Wikipedia Commons.

19. Many slum houses flooded, and in the winter, the water turned to ice in people’s rooms.

In 1859, Charles Godwin, the editor of the London-based magazine The Builder and an expert on architecture and housing in the capital, paid a visit to a slum. What he saw astounded him – and shocked his readers. While he was well aware that slum buildings were almost always in a state of disrepair, he was not prepared for just how bad the conditions were. Godwin told his readers: “it seemed scarcely possible that human beings could live: the floors were in holes, the stairs broken down, and the plastering had fallen… In one, the roof had fallen in: it was driven in by a tipsy woman one night, who sought to escape over the tiles from her husband.”

Such terrible conditions were commonplace. Many families lived in basement rooms, situated below street level. When it rained, the water seeped in, flooding them. And then when the temperatures dropped, the single pipe providing water to slum buildings would freeze. Holes in the walls and windows would be covered up in newspaper or anything else that came to hand. Unsurprisingly, many simply froze to death in their own ‘homes’ during the long, cold winters of London. These conditions were the focus of Charles Mowbray’s campaigning work and were instrumental in bringing about reforms.