Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Blackest Streets - Sarah Wise


This is a deeply-researched, unflinching account of the Old Nichol slum in late Victorian Shoreditch.  It has been put together with academic precision but what makes it such a captivating read is that Wise is not shy about saying what she thinks of the slumlords and their elected representatives.  In the case of the Old Nichol they are largely one and the same.  Local government in London at that time was in the hands of the vestry, forerunner of today's parish councils.  Like the parish councils they were expensive, ineffective, self-serving and hypocritical.  The Nichol Vestrymen owned the very slums they pontificated about and when they were forcibly stood down after three years' service, joined the Board of Guardians in order to deny relief to their tenants until they were free to resume their vestry seats.

The ownership of the Nichol properties is Wise's best work here.  Other notable blots on the social landscape included the pointless third duke of Chandos, and Sir "Tommy" Colebrooke, so-called lord of the manor of Stepney, gawd 'elp us.  Vermin both.  She also offers an illuminating insight into Arthur Morrison's classic, A Child of the Jago, which is set in a thinly-disguised Nichol.

Sarah Wise is building an important career writing about the social injustices of the capital of the empire on which the sun never set.  Her first book, The Italian Boy, was about the horrors of the workhouse and her latest, Inconvenient People, concerns the Lunacy trade in Victorian London, a subject I have researched to a certain extent myself.  I can't wait to read her findings.

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