The Nichol was a dark place, narrower, grimier, than anywhere else in London in the early twentieth century. Sarah Wise describes it at a place with shades of grey, rubbish, monotony of blackened buildings, broken furniture, smoke, ragged women, dead dogs, few beds.
It was known as “the Empire of Hunger.” Its people struggled week by week to survive. Sarah Wise’s The Blackest Streets is a study of the East End during a time of great poverty. She has thoroughly researched the history, using everything from council papers to employment wages, as evidence of the lives of people of the Nichol. Here are some of Sarah’s methods.
By using maps and archives, Sarah Wise is able to describe the Nichol as a neighbourhood of thirty or so streets and courts, rotten early nineteenth century homes, home to 5,700 people with a death rate nearly double to all the rest of Bethnal Green.
Her research leads her to discover just how the Old Nichol became such an incredibly neglected slum, and why people moved there in the first place. Through her research she describes how hopeful immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, along with migrants from the British countryside moved to the Nichol because of its proximity to the docks, as well as Shoreditch’s Curtain Road furniture depots, and industry which most of the poorest worked in. One of the most interesting pages for me in this book is the Table of Occupations of a Household’s Main Breadwinner in the Nichol (page 279), taken from the sources Minutes of Proceedings of the Council, publishes in 1890. It details the recorded occupations of those living in the Nichol in 1890. Most of the residents were labourers, hawkers, general dealers, and cabinet makers.
From the book Life and Labour of the People in London, by Hubert Llewellyn Smith, Sarah Wise learns that, “although there was a significant number of settled and half-settled Irish gypsy (‘didicai’) and Romany families, and, to judge by surnames, descendants of the late-seventeenth-century Huguenot settlers, the Nichol was a Cockney enclave.” She sites her sources well, with about thirty pages of notes, appendix, bibliography, and index in the back of The Blackest Streets.
She uses the map of the Nichol in 1746 to exam how much of the area was still fields and gardens. She notes “at some point, Cock Lane… was formed” meaning that she has used maps to distinguish that it existed by 1746, but is unsure of when it was actually founded. She also uses illustrations or photographs of the Nichol in its early years to examine the architecture and ways of living by the habitants.
Sarah Wise has done extensive research on the two Acts, the Torrens Acts and Cross Acts, which targeted unhealthy houses which were to be dealt with by the vestries. Further in her studies she examines the degradation of the vestries, their inability and lack of desire to repair the rotting Nichol neighbourhood. She analyses the research of Bethnal Green’s medical officer, George Paddock Bate, who declared Old Nichol as being in such a dangerous condition that it was “unfit for human habitation.”
Another means of research was to find the tape-recorded reminiscences of Arthur Harding, a man who had lived in the Nichol as a boy and adolescent. He described the people and way of life there. His recordings shed light on the claustrophobic housing – twelve rooms let out to twelve families. They describe the ease at which theft in the Nichol turned to violence as one grew older. We learn of his mother doing one of the most dangerous East End trades, rag sorting in a factory, and that being in a telephone directory was seen as an elevated position to someone in the Nichol. However, despite these recordings (conducted between 1973 and 1979 by historian Raphael Samuel), some of his memories clashed with facts Sarah Wise had discovered from other sources. For example, she points out that Arthur was blind to the number of old people and Jews in the Nichol and in fact Charles Botoh’s Life and Labor survey reveals there were some Jews in the neighbourhood, and that the Poor Law records reveal there were many old people.
Sarah Wise has a chapter discussing the Nichol in stories, including Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. She includes the map from his novel, and describes it as “a very thinly disguised Old Nichol,” deducing Edge Lane as Boundary Street, Honey Lane as Mead Street, and Luck Row as Chance Street.
Perhaps the most interesting is the map drawn by Charles Booth, the forty-six year old shipping magnate and statistician. In 1886 he organised Life and Labour of the People in London which was published in three series from 1889 to 1903. Using a broad range of information, he details the neighbourhoods based on class and income. In Charles Booth’s Poverty Map, class A is marked in black, almost as if smudged out, unwanted, or representing death, and he describes it as “the lowest grade/occasional labourers, loafers and semi-criminals.” Booth’s map has been widely published and there is much debate on its usefulness and judgemental tone, because the average incomes of an area did not necessarily equate to criminal status.
Perhaps the most poignant thing to note is that despite her book being thoroughly researched, learning about how the true Old Nichol came down to interviewing, word of mouth, and historical fiction. Sarah Wise has given us a very clear image of how the lives of the people in the Nichol were. But can we ever really know?