Where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them
April 3, 2012 10:41 PM   Subscribe

Street Life in London.
posted by stbalbach at 10:47 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, I just feel sorry, a little, for these folks. I know it's the condescension coming from a vantage point of a century later, but still. It makes me sad to think about what kind of hard lives people had in earlier times. I surmise folks centuries hence will feel similarly about us.

It reminds me of a vivid memory I have as a sophomore in college. I was taking a course in Medieval History at Arizona State. I was in professor William W. Wootten's office one day, chatting about the latest lecture, when I, in my naivety, said something like "wouldn't it have been neat to have lived back then?"

"Heavens no!" he said immediately, with a wave of his hand and rolling his eyes good naturedly.

I was taken aback. "Why not?" Surely it would have been great to have lived in the time of castles and knights and all that. As I say, I was naive.

"Why not?" he echoed and then prompted with "Rampant disease? No medical care to speak of...superstition instead of science. Gross economic injustice. Capricious and corrupt government. No modern amenities to ease the burdens of life...and the SMELL. The smell must have been phenomenale!" He went on to describe how animals were quartered with the people and chamberpots were emptied out into the streets.

I had grown up loving history, but that was the first moment it really hit me how horribly awful life would have been like long ago, compared with how we have it today. I still love history -- even more so now -- but it's had a lot of the romantic notions stripped away.

Interestingly, some of these photos are pretty close to what I saw in Tunisia no more than a decade ago. Elderly men dressed in rumpled suits pushing peanut wagons down old alleys as they shout out their wares. Living next to the Medina in Tunis was sometimes like stepping back a hundred years in history. Living in the jungles of Cameroon was sometimes like stepping back a thousand.
posted by darkstar at 11:17 PM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

Pendant's note: technically the tag for this post is wrong: it is "gorblimeyguv", not "coorblimeyguy" [god blind me].
posted by MuffinMan at 11:18 PM on April 3, 2012

Also by John Thomas: Through China with a camera (1899)
posted by stbalbach at 11:19 PM on April 3, 2012

Love your work, MuffinMan. Drooping with irony.

Something that I have reflected on more often than necessary is just how bad the streets of london would have smelled. Horse piss, BO, gin, tanneries, open sewers, rotting fruit and vegetables, it would have been awful.
posted by wilful at 11:46 PM on April 3, 2012

If humanity is not nearly wiped out a century from now, I suspect we will look at the prevalence of mental health problems today and feel as we do when we see vintage pictures of widespread destitution and malnourishment.
posted by myvines at 11:49 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

'Business, sir! Don't talk to us of business! It's going clean away from us'

The more things change...
posted by arcticseal at 11:58 PM on April 3, 2012

I love that the Mail seems to be nostalgic about it.

MuffinMan I stand by corblimeyguv but added gorblimeyguv because you are a mefite. And mefites are seldom wrong.
posted by mattoxic at 12:18 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you see period recreations on the BBC and the like, you get the impression that they're at least trying to be faithful and accurate. But you never see this kind of grime, these kinds of used-until-broken, then mended and used again and again trappings, and rarely see people so used up and old before their time, let alone see them everywhere. The most grittily realistic period film or show seems like a well-scrubbed nostalgia theme park compared to these images. I had thought that Casualty 1906 et seq had done a pretty good job, but really, apart from one memorable sequence at a Navy hospital, it really pulled its punches too.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:30 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

On smell:

I saw something on the History Channel once that actually was kind of neat - something about "what Paris was like right before the Revolution" or something. At one point, after doing some research into what the sanitary conditions were at the time -- not just chamber pots and people not bathing, but they also had tanners and sewage being dumped into the Seine - the host visited a Paris perfumer and had them mix up something that would have actually smelled like Paris would have smelled back then. Then they brought it out onto the street and offered people a chance to try this new Perfume called "Paris 1789" or whatever, and there was this whole sequence of passersby trying this "perfume" and all of them retching and gagging when they smelled it.

I feel like we should do that for every major city and then bring it into schools or something to help kids understand "yeah, wasn't so great back then."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:09 AM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

There's a book by Turtledove and Tarr called Household Gods that I thought captured this aspect rather well - the very real actual shock of the sheer difference in quality of life.
posted by infini at 4:18 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

EmpressCallipygos: that sounds like the BBC series Filthy Cities.

By the way, Cor Blimey! (Coor with two os perhaps not so much) is a perfectly valid variant of Gorblimey!, with Cor! and Blimey! [NSFW image] also often seen separately.
posted by misteraitch at 4:32 AM on April 4, 2012

No medical care to speak of...superstition instead of science. Gross economic injustice. Capricious and corrupt government.

You being deliberately ironic?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:32 AM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

...and the SMELL

There's a book about it! It's quite good too.
posted by Ritchie at 4:35 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've always felt Neal Stephenson painted one of the better, more accurate pictures of life in London (and elsewhere) in the 17th century. His descriptions of shit-filled streams trickling down the middle of London streets and the like were pretty vivid.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:52 AM on April 4, 2012

Pendant's note

And Muphrey's Law strikes again.
posted by stopgap at 5:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a series put out by the BBC called The Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, one of which is the London sewer system. They spend quite a bit of time talking about the sanitary conditions in London at the time, and the rampant disease spread through contaminated water supply. The designers and builders of the sewer system could not get Parliament's agreement to begin the project until the smell was so bad that MPs started getting their offices fumigated (because they believed that disease was airborne, and that they were consequently in the same danger commoners faced every day). It's a fascinating episode to watch, but certainly not for the faint of stomach.
posted by LN at 5:58 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

"rarely see people so used up and old before their time, let alone see them everywhere."

When I was about 12, I ran across a "yearbook" my grandfather had from his training base in WWII, with pictures of everyone at the base. (I'm unclear on what its purpose was, but it was basically a yearbook.) First I was looking through the officers, like my grandfather, who mostly looked young and clean-cut and good skin and well-fed and, you know, modern but with black-and-white old-timey photography.

Then I got to the enlisted men.

That's when I learned about the class divide. I kept checking and double-checking the ages in disbelief; they looked so OLD for their ages. Bad teeth (and you know how the American middle classes are about their teeth), worn and weathered skin, worn-in wrinkles, hollow cheeks, raw-boned faces that just didn't look finished ... I mean, the officers mostly grew up in lives that, deficits in indoor plumbing and modern orthodonture aside, would be recognizable (and livable) to a modern college student. The enlisted men mostly grew up in a much harsher and rougher environment, even if just because their work was heavy or outdoor manual labor (even if they had adequate rest and food), often with nutritional deficiencies that warped their development as children.

You just don't SEE people who LOOK poor like that any more, so physically different from the middle class. (And I work with people in poverty fairly regularly. There are obviously physical markers, but not like this was, not so obvious and glaring.) It gave me a whole different visual reference for reading physical descriptions in older books.

I wish I could find it again, because I've seen plenty of pictures of healthy, hale enlisted men from WWII (my other grandfather, for one!), so I know some of it must be regional (farming regions fed better*?) or urban/rural or whatever, and I'd like to look what the fort was and where the men were from.

*I recall in WWI, something about the Germans being able to tell if they were facing the British, because the urban poor enlisted were all scrawny, or Americans/Canadians/Australians, because as farming countries their poor were fed better.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:59 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Where do you work, Eyebrows McGee?

I come from eastern Kentucky, right on the border with West Virginia, and I think many poor Appalachians still look poorly nourished and poorly developed.

It's rare to see someone out there who looks 'young for their age', or even who looks healthy.
posted by edguardo at 6:17 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the Midwest (in many types of communities). I guess one of the big differences would be that while you (I) still see people with nutritional deficits these days, you don't nearly as often see CALORIE deficits as you used to.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 AM on April 4, 2012

Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor is an enormous collection of interviews with people living in this kind of crushing poverty.

It's interesting to me how many of these terribly poor and clearly undernourished folks are chubby or even fat. Of course there must have been a lot of hypothyroid, especially among the women. But it makes you think how tenuous the superstition that people are necessarily fat because they "eat too much" and "aren't active enough" really is. That lady running the second-hand clothes shop probably had a 12-hour work day and went everywhere by foot, and had tea and bread for most of her meals.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:47 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's rare to see someone out there who looks 'young for their age', or even who looks healthy.

I am often surprised (and humbled) by the relative difference in age/looks as described above between myself and women even a decade younger than me who are from the lower income strata *and* in the third world.
posted by infini at 7:06 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re: Eybrows McGee's comment - those pictures of "healthy, hale enlisted men from WWII" were probably taken after basic training and months of maybe the first three square meals a day for many of these men, given that all of them had grown up in the Depression.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 7:11 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here is an image of a branch of my family, taken in northern West Virginia/SE Ohio around 1903. The dapper fellow with the banjo is one of my great-grandparents. The old guy sitting to the left of him was 102 at the time - he was too old to fight in the Civil War, ferchrissakes. (This was taken at their old homestead dating back to the early 1800s; most of them lived in the city by then, but it makes the picture looks like it was taken 40 years earlier than it was. The crack in the photo plate happened on its way back down the mountain on horseback.)

In this moment, you see four generations in a transitional phase in their world, moving from rural to urban. Could you predict from that that just four generations later one of their progeny would be flying through the air at 600mph, on a trip to London that takes only six hours, looking at pictures from the surface of Mars that were taken just a few hours before?

In the faces of each of them, you can see what kind of jobs and working environment they had, even with the children. Boggles my damn mind.
posted by chambers at 7:16 AM on April 4, 2012 [12 favorites]

and had tea and bread for most of her meals.

Nah you don't get fat like that on tea and bread. Many people ate very well, and not just the elite either. Emile Zola's novel The Belly of Paris is an orgy of mid-19th food description of the working and middle classes.
posted by stbalbach at 7:54 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been reading a fair bit lately about the origins of civilization and agriculture.

What strikes me about it is that although agriculture brings about a situation where stored food surpluses become possible for the first time, it also comes about that controlling access to that food supply (for various reasons and under various conditions) leads to starvation in the shadow of abundance.

It seems that in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies, sharing was the rule, and no individual starved while someone else ate significantly more than the others.

But everyone who has lived in a city is familiar with the kind of poverty that can exist there, just because concrete or cobblestone supports neither crops nor game. The default situation for someone living surrounded by buildings is one of starvation (since subsistence farming or hunting is not an option there), and so whoever controls the access to food decides who gets to eat.

Today many people in the United States have access to more calories than they need, because agriculture can produce abundant calories, as always. But they are not the most nutritious calories, and they are not acquired independently of corporate suppliers.

Wal-Mart, Kroger, and a few restaurant chains are the only food providers for many people, but only as long as they work, and only as long as they eat only what they can afford.

It is one of the oldest conditions of servitude known to man: needing to rely completely on someone else for your calories.
posted by edguardo at 8:01 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

My mother was brought up in a house in Northern England with no bathroom and only an outside toilet. Two parents and five children shared 3 bedrooms, and my mother actually shared a bed with her two sisters. There was no heating outisde the main living room. They bathed once a week in a tin bath in front of the fire, with her father getting first go with the bath water. The outdoor toilet was not heated and had no electric light. You wiped on newspaper. The house was regularly infested with mice and ants. On the patch of land behind her house was a pond known as the 'doggy' because that's where dead dogs were thrown (I have mentioned this here previously). She had rheumatic fever when she was 14 and was lucky to survive it. She was born in 1944.

A few weeks ago on the blue someone left a comment that someone she knew was living with their three sons and had only one bathroom. My understanding was that this was to be taken as indicative that they were living in straightened circumstances. I laughed as this would have been regarded as the norm when I was a child (1970s-1980s) and we would not have thought of this as showing us to be in poverty, but I think it makes a point here about our different standards and expectations concerning normality and how they are likely to continue to shift in the future.
posted by biffa at 8:18 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

The thing that jumps out at me is how wrinkled everyone's clothes were, because today the poor are the least wrinkled of all, with lots of synthetic fibers and denim, and it's the wealthy who wear linen and other natural fibers.
posted by HotToddy at 8:38 AM on April 4, 2012

My "favorite" medieval job: privy-climbing castle-unlocker.

Castles had privies located on their outer walls... basically pit toilets with long shafts that led to cleanout holes on the bottom outside wall. However, the anatomical limits of ... toilet proportions ... set a minimum size on the shafts.

Now, you, the invading army, need a boy small enough to pass through a loo hole, and old enough to climb several stories, fingering the stone crevices (that's actually the easy part - it's almost impossible to fall in such a tunnel).

Once the filth-sodden lad reaches the top, all he has to do is creep (splech, splech...) down to the gate, and somehow open the door...

After a certain point in history, the toilet holes were designed facing in... which was obviously not a popular decision.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:13 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Nice. Reminds me of a swell old XTC tune, "Towers of London" - an ode to the folks who put it all up.
posted by jetsetsc at 9:36 AM on April 4, 2012

Reminds me a little of this episode of Portlandia
posted by phirleh at 9:46 AM on April 4, 2012

how wrinkled everyone's clothes were

It used to be all clothing was hand made by a tailor and cloth was very expensive, so clothing was very costly. So a lot of people had one set of work clothes which they wore until it wore out, or two. Laundry was also costly since it was hand washed and air dried so they'd wear it every day for the week, then laundry day. It was also common to sleep in clothes since heating wasn't so great and not everyone could afford special night clothes for the same reasons. All these difficulties meant that many people on the lower ends simply just wore the same outfit 24x7 for weeks on end. This all changed with machines to make cloth, factories to make standard size cheap clothing and machines to wash clothes. OTOH, many of those old clothes were made to last, super thick and durable that you don't find much anymore.
posted by stbalbach at 1:52 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Biffa, do we have the same mum? The only difference is my mum was raised like that in Cambridge. She had it better than my dad though, his privie was shared among several families, except when in Benardo's Homes. I'll have to ask him more about the orphanage.

I work with New Canadians, usually from areas recently in war, and it is sad to see how it is often the women and girls that have stunted growth, bowed legs and a lack of teeth. Because I use their ID I can see how their chronological age is so different to the age the physically present according to our norms. And these are the lucky ones that were rich enough to escape.
posted by saucysault at 3:02 PM on April 4, 2012

Some of these people may well have been my ancestors. One branch of my tree lived and died in Lambeth for generations, with jobs like iron safe maker, charwoman, confectioner's assistant, carter, general labourer. A number of them didn't live past 40. At one stage my great-great-grandmother is living in what is probably a pretty tiny house with her 70-year-old mother, her 7 children ranging in age from 20 to 3, her son-in-law and one baby grandchild.

While poking around various public records I found scanned copies of my partner's great-great-grandmother's will. She couldn't write; she signed with "her mark", an X. She emigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1858, her passage paid by the Australian government; she died in 1904 possessed of several hundred pounds. One of her grandsons was knighted, another got an MBE; not bad for the grandchildren of a (presumably) poor, illiterate immigrant. It really brought home to me the reasons *why* people wanted to come to a new country.
posted by andraste at 5:04 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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