Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Old Nichol

"But the Old Nichol, a maze of rotting streets hemmed in by bleak tenement buildings, might as well have been on a different planet...No grass grew in this dark and putrid labyrinth.  The narrow canyons of blackened brick tenements blocked out the sun and all colour was leached away except for the dull greys of smoke and soot." (

The Old Nichol, one of London's worse slums, had a death rate twice that of neighbouring areas.  One quarter of all children died before their first birthday.  While many children died of malnourishment or disease, others died of suffocation, the result of "overlaying," being smothered by a parent in the family bed.  

Many families lived in one room where they not only slept together, but also bathed together and saw each other naked.  Children were subjected to watching their parents have sex together.  As Beatrice Webb said:  "Sexual promiscuity and even sexual perversion -- the violation of young children -- are almost unavoidable among men and women of average character and intelligence crowded into the one room tenements of slum areas."  

Economic survival meant turning to a life of pickpocketing for many children.  Trained by older theives, one technique was to hang a coat on a hook with a bell and see if the trainee could remove a handkerchief from the pocket without ringing the bell.  Those who were small and quick like Oliver Twist's Artful Dodger were the most successful at the game.  Those who weren't successful would often get caught.  Before 1829, when London had no professional police force, the punishment could have been hanging, hard labour sentences or even banishment to Botany Bay.

Between 1884 and 1886, unemployment quadrupled among London's unionized workers, many who came from the slums.  The coldest February in 30 years brought work on the Thames' docks to a standstill, sparking mass demonstrations in Piccadilly where shops were looted and windows stoned. Twenty months later another demonstration landed many in jail.  

As a result the London County Council was formed, recommending that the Old Nichol slum be demolished.  In 1900, the Prince of Wales visited the old neighbourhood, now covered over by a broad, tree lined avenue.  However, the slum dwellers no longer lived there; they had been relegated to nearby neighbourhoods which became more slums.

Note:  For more information, read The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise.

Old Nichol circa 1890 courtesy

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