Slum Housing in 1881

In Lisson Grove, Marylebone

The City of London had been rebuilt furiously between 1860 and 1880. New sewers, railways, and roads made life unbearable for those living there and destroyed dwellings, especially the slum rookeries of the poor. Houses were being built outside the City for the more prosperous of those driven out. They went to Kensington and St John's Wood, or to suburbs like Kentish Town and Stoke Newington. The poorer, who could not afford the fares and prices, had to crowd into the old streets of Lisson Grove, and Seven Dials. Christchurch , in Bell Street ,Marylebone, which had been a fashionable church thirty years earlier, found itself surrounded by streets of dilapidated, overcrowded houses, split into single room tenements. This 1881 newspaper report reveals the actual housing conditions at that time.

In the issue of 28th June 1881 appeared the following description of one of the courts of houses in Marylebone:-

The Mercury Independent

A Fever Den

"Now if you are to see as bad a den as exists in this part of London , I'll take you there; it's close by."

We assent with alacrity and follow our guide back into Upper Lisson Grove. At the lower end, just before reaching the Marylebone Road , our communicative guide stops.

"I should advise you to hold your handkerchiefs in your hands," he says, "You may require them. We are going into one of the foulest dens in the district."

Having favoured us with this attractive introduction, he leads the way up a narrow passage some three feet wide. The narrow gangway is bounded by walls some eight feet high, and the lane thus formed is so long as to give one the idea of our being led into a trap. We know our guide has no such intention however and follow him with confidence. As we reach the end, we are met by a most nauseous odour, which strikes one as being the veritable fever smell. This is what must be meant by the allusion to our handkerchiefs.

Careful not to inhale the poisonous air, we pass under the archway and find ourselves in a square some fifty feet across. The place is surrounded by one-storey tenements, each being fronted by a so called garden bordered by broken railings. In the centre stands a dilapidated pump, and the place has the most ruinous and woebegone aspect. The smell is dreadful, especially at the corner where we enter, caused, we are informed, by the bursting of a drain.

There are twenty four houses round the square in all, twenty two of which are inhabited. They are all in a ramshackle condition, yet each of the twenty two houses harbours two families, one in each room, consisting in one case of eleven persons who sleep and eat, drink, when they have anything to eat or drink, in one room eleven feet square. Several of the upper floors let the water in through the roofs, while the staircases are in a dilapidated condition. As we enter the square the officer accosts a woman who is hanging some clothes to dry on a clothes line.

"Well Mrs - how are you getting on?"

"Nicely thank you kindly sir."

"You have some work to do I see."

"Well sir, I manage to pay my way. I got a little sewing this week and now I've got some more coming in this afternoon. I can't do as much as I would like to though because of the smell. It's very bad sometimes."

"It's bad enough now," we remark, joining in the conversation. "But are not the authorities looking into the matter? Surely this state of things has not been going on long."

"Well sir, it's always been bad since I came here two months ago. The two houses at the end are empty now; they can't get anyone to take them. The stench is so bad. They rose the rents all round six weeks ago except those two. When I first came here I paid six shillings but I have to pay seven now. They used to be five I am told. It's very unhealthy here. We've got two down at the fever hospital now, but what are we to do?

"Surely people would be better off in the workhouse than living in such a place as this?"

"Well yes sir, I suppose they would, but people have such a horror of the House. They won't go into it now if they can keep out of it. I think they are wrong. Thank God I have always been able to keep out myself, but if I could not get enough work to get my little comforts somehow, I would ask for an order at once."

We thank our intelligent informant and make a tour of the `square', talking to several of the residents. It is acknowledged to be foul and unhealthy, the rents are high, but there was nowhere else to go. At the south end the houses are overshadowed by a vast pile of buildings which must have cost several thousand pounds, one tenth of which would suffice to put the place in a decent and habitable state. This building is the new Salvation Army barracks.'

'A representative of this journal has since visited the locality indicated by the above description, which is somewhat exaggerated. It is certainly not the foulest fever den in the district as in the very next court there exists a much graver danger to the inhabitants, who are fully aware of the necessity for a change, and have frequently appealed to the landlord and the person most directly responsible for the nuisance. Should the remedy not be forthcoming, the sanitary authorities ought at once to take action. With the prospect of a hot summer before us and the warning of the mortality caused by cholera in Spain before our eyes, no one can say that matters like these may not prove of life and death importance to many besides those immediately affected.'

The Salvation Army Barracks at the south end of Lisson Grove are presumably the ones which still exist at the corner of Cosway St (then Stafford Street).

If this is the case, then the `fever den' was the narrow inner court shown on Booth's Poverty map (Map 16) and the paper was quite right in saying, "it is not one of the foulest dens in the district" despite the horrific description. Booth records two grades of poverty below this only a few streets away.

It may not be the correct building. The present Church Army building on the Marylebone Rd/Cosway Street corner has the date 1889. This is later than the 1881 newspaper account, but again, perhaps one part of the building is that old. The question of the actual slum seems open. The description is clearly true and is horrifying. It was conditions like this which led Booth to make his enormous survey oh how people were housed.

Copied from The Growth of St Marylebone and Paddington, p.14 , by Jack Whitehead, 1989.

The Booth Poverty Map, 1889, of Lisson Grove.

Wealthy (three or more servants; houses rated £100 or more)
Well to do (one or two servants)
Working class comfort
Comfort mixed with poverty
Standard poverty
Very poor

The lowest grade


This patch of Blue in Lisson Grove (were Eliza Dolittle lived) was surrounded by Red and Yellow houses occupied by the ‘Well off' and the ‘Wealthy', so disease could spread rapidly from one to the other. The Booth maps revealed the need for sanitary measures to both rich and poor.


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Revised: January 10, 2009 9:13 AM